Judge to hear case of Missouri's last abortion clinic on Thursday

Judge to hear case of Missouri's last abortion clinic on Thursday

CENTRAL WEST END – A judge will hear arguments Thursday over whether state health regulators can pull the license of the last abortion clinic operating in Missouri. 

A hearing on the case had been set for Wednesday afternoon, but Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer said the hearing had been postponed until 10:30 a.m. Thursday.

“Due to facts out of everybody’s control here, this case will be given a brief continuance,” Stelzer said in open court.

Those in Missouri looking to access abortion services may have to go out of state beginning Friday as Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services is ready to refuse a new license for Planned Parenthood’s clinic at 4251 Forest Park Avenue in St. Louis’ Central West End.  

Though Planned Parenthood has filed for a restraining order against the state in an attempt to stop the revocation of its license, it’s unclear whether they will win in court. The case is set to go before a circuit court judge on Wednesday.

This refusal by the Department of Health to renew the license comes on the heels of Gov. Mike Parson’s signing of a ban on all abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy.  That high-profile piece of legislation has no bearing on the licensure issue but once again puts Missouri in the national spotlight regarding the abortion debate.  

Closure of the clinic would make Missouri the first state to have no operating abortion clinic since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in the early 1970s.

Dr. Colleen McNicholas, who provides abortion services at Planned Parenthood, says this is an attempt to eliminate abortion from Missouri without making any changes to the law or court precedent. 

“There’s a sort of two-prong approach to trying to shut down abortion,” she said. “The first is through the legislative process, and that’s by sort of all these laws that ares passing, the sort of sweeping abortion bans across the states. But the second, and less well known, is through this regulatory inspection process.”

McNicholas said it was difficult for clinics to comply with the rules set by the Department of Health, as they seem to change year to year.

One roadblock this time around is the state’s request to interview seven care providers – two physicians and five trainees – some of whom no longer work at Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood had refused the request, saying they can’t control doctors who are not directly employed by them, but state officials say interviews with doctors are an enforceable part of state health regulation.  

The two physicians recently agreed to submit to the interview, but, McNicholas said, “until very recently, the state had declined our offer to be interviewed.”  

She said state officials insisted on speaking to all seven people in a particular order. McNicholas finally completed that interview on Tuesday afternoon.

Some say it’s a good thing the state might see no more abortion clinics. Among the critics is Brian Westbrook, executive director for the Coalition for Life, a pro-life nonprofit that seeks to offer women alternatives to abortion. Volunteers for the Coalition can be seen almost daily outside the Central West End Planned Parenthood clinic.

“We have women that are going there who are hemorrhaging and there’s serious medical emergencies,” Westbrook said. “Then yeah, I would like these things addressed, and I would like the governor’s office and the state government to look at them and say, ‘Are they providing good-quality health care for women?’”

McNicholas, however, believes that they are providing that level of care and that restricting access to abortion is harmful.

“We are sitting in a state that has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the country,” she said. “We are a state that hasn’t expanded access to Medicaid. So we have lots of examples in this state of how women’s health and infants’ health is not prioritized. By limiting access to abortion, we are only going to worsen those statistics.”

But, she added, “please be sure to know that, whether we can provide them here in this facility or not, we will make sure that every patient who needs an abortion finds access to that care.”

The facility has until Friday for its license to be renewed.