Updated 6 p.m., May 30
Lawyers for Planned Parenthood on Thursday told a St. Louis Circuit Court judge that Missouri health officials have delayed renewing a license to the state’s sole abortion provider by continually asking for additional information.
In a hearing, Planned Parenthood’s lawyers asked Judge Michael Stelzer to issue a temporary restraining order barring the state Department of Health and Senior Services from denying to renew the license for its St. Louis clinic. That license expires at midnight Friday.
Judge Michael Stelzer did not make a decision on Thursday, but could do so by late Friday. If the judge does not rule, Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region — Missouri’s only licensed abortion provider — would close.
Shortly after the hearing adjourned, hundreds of abortion rights advocates gathered near the Gateway Arch to protest the potential closure. Demonstrators soon began marching to the Wainwright State Office Building, where some activists went inside, sat on the floor with their arms interlocked and chanted protest refrains for about two hours.
Police then broke up the demonstration inside the building and arrested more than a dozen protestors.
Details of the lawsuit
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, Planned Parenthood claims that the state is attempting to shut down the clinic by “unlawfully” tying the routine renewal of its license to the completion of the department’s investigation into a patient complaint that the Department of Health and Human Services has not disclosed to Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood is asking the judge to declare that the state’s licensing investigation is “arbitrary and capricious” or that the state cannot interfere with a person’s right to an abortion.
Planned Parenthood officials on Thursday criticized the state’s “open-ended” investigation and said the organization had complied with the department’s orders to correct problems it had found with the clinic.
“They are changing the rules and changing their conditions and trying to find what is the line at which Planned Parenthood won’t cross,” said M’Evie Mead, president of Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri.
John Sauer, an attorney for Gov. Mike Parson and the state Department of Health and Senior Services, told Stelzer the interviews were necessary to determine if the facility was fit to receive its license renewal. It’s not unusual to seek interviews with people who worked in a health care facility as part of a license investigation, he said.
The Republican governor last week signed a bill that outlawed abortion after eight weeks. The majority of the law’s abortion restrictions will take effect Aug. 28 unless challenged in court. The ACLU of Missouri called the state's new law unconstitutional and said it will look at options, including legal action.
During the hearing, the organization’s lawyers used the example of the comic strip character Charlie Brown preparing to kick a football only to have it pulled away.
“If only this were a comic and not a safe medical procedure that would be outlawed by this type of behavior, where the state changes the rules left and right,” Mead said.
Planned Parenthood officials say the state wanted to interview several physicians and a nurse who worked at the clinic before it issued a new license, an order the organization said it couldn't enforce because most are independent providers and not employees.
Protesters demand continued access to abortions
The potential court decision brought dozens of Planned Parenthood activists to the St. Louis Gateway Arch grounds Thursday morning. Protesters marched from the Arch grounds to the Wainwright State Office building. More than a dozen activists were detained after entering the building.
“I want the rally to be a starting point," said Pamela Merritt, the master of ceremonies of the rally. “Nothing is going to change if we continue to send people to Jefferson City or to Washington D.C. who do not respect women’s decisions, who want to regulate women’s bodies.”
Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an attending physician at the Planned Parenthood clinic, said this week that its predicament is the result of several decades of restrictions that have eroded access to reproductive health care in Missouri. She said access to abortion is about to vanish in the state before a challenge is mounted to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973.
"This is a foreshadowing of what is to come in other states if we don’t step up now and do whatever is necessary to stop politicians from interfering with reproductive health care and the relationship between patients and their providers," McNicholas said.
At the protest, Merritt said the loss of Planned Parenthood’s license would hurt people who lack the means to travel to other states for an abortion procedure. She also said not having an abortion provider in Missouri would significantly harm African American women.
“This is going to radically change the way that people experience pregnancy, particularly for black women who face a four-times-higher maternal mortality rate,” Merritt said. “This is dire consequences.”
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