JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A joint committee hearing between the House’s Ways and Means and the Children and Families Committees was held Thursday to discuss the allegations in videos made by the Center for Medical Progress against Planned Parenthood that the medical organization is selling fetal tissue for profit.
The committee also looked into the conditions by which the Columbia Planned Parenthood affiliate received its ambulatory surgical center (ASC) license.
The day-long hearing took place over the course of nearly five hours with a recess in the middle and featured testimony from Gail Vasterling, the Director of the Department of Health and Senior Services as well as from the general public with interest in the case.
Vasterling, who was questioned at length last week by the Senate Interim Committee on the Sanctity of Human Life, gave many of the same answers as she did at last week’s hearing, again without going into too many specifics. She again reported that no one within the department, including the survey team which performs annual on-site investigations, had any indication to believe that the St. Louis affiliate of Planned Parenthood was involved in the illicit sale of fetal tissue or the body parts of the unborn.
“The survey team saw nothing along those lines,” Vasterling said. When pressed on the issue if Planned Parenthood was committing any wrongdoing, she continued, “I guess they could, but [the survey team] do a pretty thorough job. I don’t have knowledge of everything that goes on in Missouri.”
The St. Louis affiliate was the only approved abortion provider in the state when the allegations were made.
She also noted that she was confident in her department’s renewal of an ASC license for the Planned Parenthood of Columbia facility, which restarted its abortion services earlier this month after three years of dormancy.
However, Vasterling also could not answer other questions asked by the members of the two committees, notably what happened to fetal remains after they were sent to a pathologist by the abortion provider as required by state law. She stated that the department had no direct oversight over those facilities and what they did with fetal remains.
Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis, suggested the Department of Natural Resources, which ensures the disposal of medical material, including human remains, would have more to offer on the subject.
The chair of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, said that answering the questions surrounding the pathology labs was at the top of his list of concerns.
“One of my greatest concerns is where these remains are going,” he said. “We have some statutes and regulations that are in place and maybe they need to be strengthened. Maybe what need to happen is that because there’s a pathology lab on every abortion, maybe we need to have that checked when it gets disposed of… maybe get whatever entity or that company that does these in here to testify to see if we can get answers.”
He also noted the absence of a Planned Parenthood representative, even though the organization was invited to testify, according to Rep. Diane Franklin, R-Camdenton.
“I would love for them to come in and testify,” Koenig said. “If they’re doing nothing wrong, why wouldn’t they come in here and testify. Certainly there’s no question that state statutes and regulations are being violated if the allegations in the videos are true.”
Koenig also asked one witness whether or not the rest of the state could provide the same level of care for women’s health services “if Planned Parenthood wasn’t around.”
One member of the public who testified, Dr. Ed Weisbart, the chair of the Physicians for a National Health Program with experience as an obstetrician, came to the defense of Planned Parenthood and accused the committee of trying to put “the big hand of government in my practice.”
“That video … was clearly produced by an organization which was created to produce videos like that. It was done with false identification, it was based on lies and badly edited to create a message that would then justify having hearings of this nature, and you guys are taking advantage of the material they gave you. There is no evidence that any of those things is going on… This could clearly be defined as a witch hunt or a fishing expedition.”
Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Union, denied the committee was unfairly going after Planned Parenthood.
“Any defense of what was going on in the video struck me as rather disingenuous,” Curtman said. “The current law allows people to be recuperated or reimbursed for this practice, which I don’t agree with at all in the first place but in the video and when you read the transcripts, they clearly negotiate price and it starts with an official from Planned Parenthood asking how much the buyers are used to paying. That is not a reimbursement… That is a negotiation for anybody who is looking for extra consideration, which i clearly against our laws.”
“So the fact that we’re having this committee because the question has been raised that there might be wrongdoing, and we need to get to the bottom of it is clearly within the jurisdiction of the legislature.”
Further look into the Columbia affiliate’s ASC license
Rep. Elaine Gannon, R-DeSoto, offered to the committee a separate, smaller piece of investigation into how the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Columbia received its ASC license. She gave a comprehensive timeline of the facility’s status and a look into a lawsuit made by Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri against the state of Missouri when a new law was passed stating that all abortion providers must be ASC certified by the state.
The change of the Columbia facility’s status as an ASC included a list of changes to be compliant with DHSS regulation: door widths needed to be modified for gurneys, fire extinguishers relocated, a sprinkler system had to be installed, needed a separate area for soiled items, needed constant exhaust in those areas. The affiliate could perform medical abortions, but not surgical abortions, at that time.
The Columbia affiliate did receive multiple waivers on some changes on the dimensions for the procedure room, on having a unisex changing room instead of one for each gender, on lighting specification, where patients belongings could be kept, and conditions regarding their sterilization room.
Vasterling later said the survey team had granted the facility a license after those changes had been made and that hundreds of ASCs in Missouri go through this process every year.