The battle over abortion rights in Missouri spilled from the courtroom into city streets on Thursday as hundreds of people gathered near the St. Louis Arch to demand state officials stop trying to limit access to abortion.
Carrying signs that read “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” and “Protect Safe, Legal Abortion,” they were there to protest the state’s efforts to limit access to abortion and the potential closing of the state’s only abortion provider.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and Planned Parenthood have been in a standoff over the clinic’s license, and today its future is in the hands of St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer.
The judge is expected to rule soon on Planned Parenthood’s request for a temporary restraining order barring the state from delaying a renewal of the clinic’s license, which expires at midnight. Without it, Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region would close.
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. The Department of Health and Human Services has not disclosed that complaint 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 constitutional right to an abortion.
Restrictions On Abortion Spark Outrage
Abortion rights activists already were incensed that Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill last week that will soon outlaw abortion after eight weeks, one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. The increased scrutiny on Planned Parenthood’s clinic was another indication that the state is trying to end access to abortion, they said.
“Shame on Missouri politicians and government for weaponizing the licensing and regulatory process to end safe and legal abortion in Missouri,” M’Evie Mead, director of Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri, said after Thursday’s hearing.
But Parson and other state officials say the investigation into the clinic isn't political.
“We should all agree that regardless of the number of abortion facilities, every step should be taken to ensure all laws are followed for the safety and well being of women’s health care,” Parson said at a press conference earlier this week.
Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, said state officials want to verify that Planned Parenthood is in compliance with state laws and regulations. He said the department must do that before renewing a license.
“There are six million people in Missouri. I’m sure many are pro-life, many are pro-choice, but our duty is to maintain the public trust by regulating these facilities such that they follow the law, regulations and keep people safe,” Williams told NPR’s Audie Cornish on Thursday.
State officials say they need to interview several physicians who have worked at the clinic to investigate “deficiencies” in patient care. The state’s lawyer on Thursday cited an instance of a patient being rushed to the hospital after an abortion. They called the clinic’s refusal to make physicians available for interviews “unprecedented.”
But the clinic’s doctors say they’ve fixed all the issues the state found during its annual inspection earlier this spring.
“If it were about health and safety of our patients, the department of health has the power and prerogative to stop our care the moment they identified a safety concern,” said David Eisenberg, the clinic’s medical director.
Eisenberg, an OB-GYN, said the clinic now requires that the same doctor who consults with a patient before an abortion performs the procedure.
State Accused of Changing The Rules
State health officials have interviewed two of the clinic’s doctors, but they want the clinic to make five other physicians available for questioning before they renew its license. Planned Parenthood officials say it cannot do so because the physicians were or are independent contractors. They also have declined to be interviewed on the advice of counsel.
Eisenberg said the state’s quickly changing regulations and inconsistent enforcement leave those people, many at the start of their medical careers, at risk of criminal prosecution.
“The fact is that this year, the state has somehow reinterpreted the rules to believe that we are noncompliant with rules that haven’t changed,” he said.
If the clinic closes, abortion rights advocates say that would disproportionately harm African American women, the poor and those in rural areas who can’t afford the time or money it takes to travel to a clinic in a neighboring state.
“Missouri is already in what's considered an abortion desert where the majority of Missourians live over 100 miles from a clinic,” said Michele Landeau, board president of the Gateway Women’s Access Fund, which provides financial support to women seeking abortions. “Closing clinics is just going to make that distance even worse.”
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