Judge Nixes Doctor Subpoenas in Missouri Abortion Case

In this May 17, 2019 photo, Teresa Pettis, right, greets a passerby outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis. Pettis was one of a small number of abortion opponents protesting outside the clinic on the day the Missouri Legislature passed a sweeping measure banning abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. (AP Photo/Jim Salter, File)

ST. LOUIS (CN) – Planned Parenthood won the first round Tuesday in a legal battle to keep Missouri’s only abortion clinic open, after a St. Louis judge quashed subpoenas seeking the testimony of four doctors in the state’s bid to pull the clinic’s license.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer wrote in a two-page order that the doctors “have shown that compliance with the subpoenas would present an undue burden and hardship” on them.

Planned Parenthood also sought clarification on whether its motion for a preliminary or a permanent injunction would be heard. In a separate order, Stelzer found that only the preliminary injunction is ripe of adjudication and he set a hearing for Wednesday on that motion only.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesperson for the Missouri attorney general’s office, said they do not comment on pending litigation.

Dr. Colleen McNicholas with Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region said they are fighting “to ensure we can continue caring for patients.”

“Planned Parenthood is also relieved that doctors in training will not have to come to court and face the unwarranted harassment we’ve long said is inappropriate. We look forward to another day in this fight — for our patients and for the doctors who provide safe, legal abortion,” McNicholas said.

Earlier in the day, lawyers for Planned Parenthood and the four affiliated doctors appeared before Stelzer to deliver their arguments on the motion to quash the subpoenas and another for clarification on the injunction requests.  

Planned Parenthood sued the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, its director Randall Williams and Republican Governor Mike Parson last Tuesday, seeking injunctive relief with its license set to expire at the end of the week. It claimed that that state was illegally refusing to renew the St. Louis clinic’s abortion license until it could complete an investigation into an unspecified patient complaint.

If Planned Parenthood’s license is denied, Missouri would become the first state without any abortion providers since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion up until 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer issued a temporary restraining order in favor of Planned Parenthood on Friday.

“There are two parts to this,” M’Evie Mead, director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Missouri, told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing. “There are deficiencies that are clear that the health center has addressed in their plan of correction. Then there is the question of this murky investigation that was supposedly based on a patient complaint that last week’s legal document shows is not true. So the state and the governor have lied about this being about a patient complaint.”

Lawyers for four of the five doctors who refused to cooperate with the state’s investigation argued that those physicians have no knowledge of the health center’s procedures. The doctors were in training from nearby universities and were not privy to the clinic’s protocols.

Attorneys for the state, meanwhile, argued that the doctors’ testimony is essential because they have a unique knowledge of the center’s patient care and procedures.

Stinson attorney Jamie Boyer, arguing on behalf of Planned Parenthood, said the issue of whether the organization’s request is for a preliminary or permanent injunction was not addressed in Stelzer’s restraining order last week. Since both avenues present different challenges, Boyer said the legal team needed more time to prepare.

John Sauer with the Missouri attorney general’s office countered by trying to flip Planned Parenthood’s arguments.

“Planned Parenthood has said this is a public health crisis,” Sauer told Stelzer during Tuesday’s hearing. “We are ready to proceed.”

Boyer countered that the magnitude of the issue warranted expedited discovery.

“Because it is such an important public health issue, it is important to do this right,” she argued.

Stelzer began the hearing with a statement making clear, especially to the media, that this case was not about abortion rights, but simply about the state’s ability to deny the abortion license. He is expected to make a ruling on the motions Tuesday afternoon.

Governor Parson, a Republican, signed a bill on May 24 banning abortions on or after the eighth week of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape or incest. In addition to the eight-week cutoff, the bill also imposes a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for doctors who violate the ban. Women who receive abortions would not be prosecuted.

The bill, which is set to become law on Aug. 28, also includes an outright ban on abortions, but only if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned.

Several Republican-controlled states, emboldened by a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, have recently passed anti-abortion bills.

Three weeks ago, Alabama’s governor signed a bill making the performance of an abortion a felony in nearly all cases.

Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia have approved bans on abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur in about the sixth week of pregnancy. Similar restrictions in North Dakota and Iowa have been struck down in court.

Missouri has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, with a 72-hour waiting period in addition to the impending eight-week ban.

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