Judge OKs Missouri Rule Aimed at Abortion Pills

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) – A federal judge ruled Monday that Planned Parenthood cannot offer medication-induced abortions at two Missouri clinics, finding it did not prove that a state rule requiring a nearby doctor to be available around the clock constitutes a substantial burden to many women seeking abortions.

U.S. District Judge Beth Phillips denied the abortion provider’s request for a preliminary injunction against the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, but did admit that the specific requirements it must abide by offer “very limited medical benefit.”

The complication-plan regulation at issue requires health care providers offering an abortion pill to have a “written agreement with a board-certified or board-eligible OB/GYN to be available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to treat complications related to abortion drugs prescribed or administered,” according to Monday’s 18-page ruling.

Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains and Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region argued that having to obey by these “unnecessary and burdensome” rules is unconstitutional because emergency care is rarely ever needed for the non-surgical abortions.

In addition to an on-call doctor, providers of medication abortion in Missouri are also required to have hospital admitting privileges, even though patients are able to remain in the comfort of their homes during a pill-induced abortion.

Nevertheless, Judge Phillips declined Monday to put a temporary halt to the regulation’s enforcement.

“It is not enough for the regulation to make it more difficult for women to obtain an abortion; instead, it must be a substantial burden on their ability to obtain an abortion,” she wrote, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down a Texas law that set impossible-to-meet standards for abortion clinics to operate in the state.

“Plaintiffs have established that the clinics in Columbia and Springfield cannot submit a compliant complication plan because they cannot associate with an OB/GYN who possesses admitting privileges. There is also no question (as plaintiffs argue) that any burden involving travel distances necessarily fails heavier on women with limited economic resources…These facts demonstrate that the regulation makes it more difficult or expensive to obtain an abortion, but they do not establish an undue burden,” Phillips added, noting that many women who are unable to get a medication abortion will opt for the surgical method instead. (Parentheses in original.)

Planned Parenthood says that, in the rare event that complications from medication abortions occur, its patients would likely seek help from the closest hospital rather than travel farther to a hospital where a physician has admitting privileges.

“Politicians and state regulators, ignoring medical evidence, continue to impose arbitrary restrictions that harm the women they purportedly serve,” Planned Parenthood executives Brandon Hill and Mary M. Kogut said in a joint statement issued after the injunction was denied.

They continued, “Even though the court found that complications from medication abortion are ‘rare,’ and ‘strongly suspect[ed] that this requirement has been imposed specifically because DHSS is aware that it is difficult for abortion providers to comply with it, and simply constitutes a backdoor effort to require admitting privileges in an attempt to avoid (or ignore) Hellerstedt,’ the court still has declined to stop this senseless regulation.” (Parentheses in original.)

The Missouri attorney general’s office, by contrast, said it was pleased with the judge’s ruling and vowed to “vigorously defend commonsense regulations that protect the health of Missouri women,” according to press secretary Mary Compton.

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