Missouri Judge Hears Debate Over Lone Abortion Clinic

Anti-abortion advocates gather outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Tuesday in St. Louis. A judge is considering whether the clinic, Missouri’s only abortion provider, can remain open. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

ST. LOUIS (CN) – Planned Parenthood urged a St. Louis judge Wednesday to issue a preliminary injunction barring Missouri officials from pulling the plug on the state’s only remaining abortion clinic.

Planned Parenthood sued the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, its director Randall Williams and Republican Governor Mike Parson last week, seeking injunctive relief with its license set to expire. It claims the state has illegally refused to renew the St. Louis clinic’s abortion license until officials 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 last Friday, hours before the license was to expire.

On Wednesday, the clinic’s attorney Jamie Boyer of the Stinson law firm asked Stelzer to expand the order and issue the preliminary injunction.

She argued that the health regulation Missouri is using as a reason to deny the license exceeds the authority granted by state law.

“The regulation ignores the correction plan clearly stated in the statutes,” Boyer told Stelzer.

Boyer argued that the court, and not the Administrative Hearing Commission, or AHC, is the proper venue due to the conflict between the regulation and statute. Only the court has the power to invalidate a regulation if it conflicts with a state law, which is what Planned Parenthood is asking.

Boyer also said that any argument to the AHC would be severely prejudiced due to the state’s failure to divulge clear allegations of violations.

“If an injunction is not granted, Planned Parenthood and the women of Missouri would suffer irreparable harm,” Boyer said to the court. “Planned Parenthood would not be able to provide quality care.”

John Sauer with the Missouri attorney general’s office countered that the court lacked jurisdiction since the clinic’s license expired on May 31 and therefore the matter should be heard by the AHC.

“The facility has been advised that it is under investigation of potential deficiencies,” Sauer told the court. “We’re still trying to determine what they are.”

Central to the state’s case are five doctors who Department of Health investigators wanted to interview but they refused to cooperate.

Planned Parenthood claims the doctors are not employed by the clinic, were in training from nearby university medical programs, and were not privy to the clinic’s procedures. On Tuesday, Stelzer quashed a subpoena seeking their testimony, writing in a two-page order that the doctors “have shown that compliance with the subpoenas would present an undue burden and hardship” on them.

Sauer argued Wednesday that the doctors’ refusal and Planned Parenthood’s unwillingness to make them cooperate sets bad precedent.

“It undermines the department’s ability to effectively regulate health facilities if a license becomes an entitlement,” he said.

Stelzer did not give an indication on when he would rule on the preliminary injunction request.

After the hearing, Williams, director of the Department of Health, and M’Evie Mead, director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Missouri, each met with reporters outside of the courthouse.

Williams said it is important for his department to talk to the five doctors to ensure safety protocols had been followed and assess whether improvements needed to be made moving forward.

He rejected questions about the harm of denying Missouri women the ability to have an abortion in the state. Williams said Missouri is bordered by eight other states and cited a clinic across the border in Illinois, about 12 miles from the Planned Parenthood’s location in St. Louis.

“We can never sacrifice safety for access,” Williams said. “We have to have both.”

Mead, meanwhile, accused Governor Parson of using the Health Department as a tool to deny Missouri women access to abortion care.

“I want to have faith in this department that it is protecting the health and safety of Missouri women and I know everyone in the state wants that,” Mead said. “That is simply not what’s going on here. They have politicized the process and now they are moving the goalposts in order to back up their unsubstantiated claims.”

Mead also said the department is obligated to clearly outline alleged quality of care violations but has not done so.

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.

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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