Missouri's only abortion clinic allowed to continue providing service
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Administrative Hearing Commissioner Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi grated Missouri's sole abortion clinic a "stay" on Friday, which allows them to continue providing service until at least August as the fight over its license plays out.
In addition to her order, Dandamudi said that there's a "likelihood" that the clinic will win the dispute.
The state has said concerns about the clinic arose from inspections in March. Citing three "failed abortions" that required additional surgery and another that led to life-threatening complications for the mother, the state's health department refused to renew the clinic's license last week.
Planned Parenthood initially sued the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services over the licensing dispute, but a St. Louis judge issued a court order allowing the procedure to continue through Friday.
In his ruling, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer wrote that the order would give Planned Parenthood time to take their case to the Administrative Hearing Commission, which handles disputes between state agencies and businesses.
The Administrative Hearing Commission scheduled a hearing on whether the state was right to not renew the license for Aug. 1 in St. Louis.
The Department of Health and Senior Services wants to interview physicians involved in the "failed" abortions including medical residents who no longer work there. Planned Parenthood has said it can't force them to talk.
The interviews have become a major sticking point in the license dispute. Attorneys for the health department wrote in legal filings to the commission that physicians' refusal to talk "presents the final, critical obstacle."
However, Dandamudi wrote that the physicians' stonewalling "in itself does not constitute a failure to comply with licensure requirements."
"Because DHSS relies substantially on the lack of these interviews as grounds for denial, we find there is a likelihood that Petitioner will succeed in its claim," Dandamudi wrote in his order granting a stay, referring to the clinic and its effort to stay open.
A spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General's Office, which is representing the state in the dispute, in a Friday email said attorneys are reviewing the order to determine next steps.
Planned Parenthood has said Missouri is using the licensing process as a weapon aimed at halting abortions.
The organization and its supporters plan to celebrate Friday in St. Louis and unveil a banner that "sends a strong message" to Gov. Mike Parson and the state's health director.
"We are relieved to have this last-minute reprieve, which means patients can continue accessing safe, legal abortion at Planned Parenthood in St. Louis for the time being," said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an OB-GYN at Reproductive Health Services at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, in a statement. "This has been a week-to-week fight for our patients and every Missourian who needs access to abortion care."
Should St. Louis Planned Parenthood lose the licensing battle, Missouri will become the first state since 1974 to not have a functioning abortion clinic. The battle also comes as abortion rights supporters raise concerns that conservative-led states, including Missouri, are attempting to end abortion through tough new laws and tighter regulation.
While the number of abortions performed in Missouri has declined every year over the past decade, uncertainty is sending more women to neighboring states than ever, particularly Illinois and Kansas.
Missouri health department statistics show that abortions in Missouri reached a low of 2,910 last year. Of those, an estimated 1,210 occurred at eight weeks or less of pregnancy, the limit set by legislation Parson signed on May 24.
Meanwhile, information from the state of Kansas shows that more Missourians get abortions in Kansas than their home state, with Missouri residents accounting for 3,300 of the 7,000 abortions performed there last year. There is an abortion clinic located in Overland park, a Kansas city suburb just 2 miles from the state line.
Alison Dreith, deputy director of The Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois said she has seen a big increase in Missouri clients since the state adopted a more restrictive abortion law in 2017 that included giving the attorney general power to prosecute violations.
Dreith said about 55 percent of patients at Hope Clinic are from Missouri, 40 percent from Illinois and 5 percent from elsewhere around the country. She added that the clinic attracts clients from across the U.S. in part because Illinois allows the procedure for up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, longer than most states.
The Granite City clinic saw about 3,000 total patients in 2017. With the clinic's location just 10 miles from St. Louis, Dreith said Missouri's more restrictive law played a big role in the number spiking to 3,800 in 2018.
"Our patients are calling us with a lot of anxiety because they're seeing the headlines that abortion is banned," Dreith said.
This year, she expects well over 4,000 patients, as the number of Missourians at the Hope Clinic has already spiked 30 percent.