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Judge kicks St. Louis Planned Parenthood case to Administrative Hearing Commission

  

A St. Louis judge ordered a preliminary injunction allowing Missouri’s lone abortion facility to continue to operate to remain in effect until the end of the week. 

Planned Parenthood must now seek review and injunctive relief from the Administrative Hearing Commission, Judge Michael Stelzer ordered.

The St. Louis abortion facility and Missouri health officials have been at loggerheads over a licensing dispute for the past month. 

The Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) allowed the Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region’s license to expire at the end of May. Planned Parenthood sued, and Stelzer, of the 22nd Circuit Court, mandated the state must make an official decision — renew or reject — on the license. He also issued a preliminary injunction, allowing the clinic to continue providing abortion services. 

DHSS officially rejected the license renewal on Friday. Specifically, state health officials have said they want to interview seven doctors who have worked or are working at the clinic as they investigate potential issues with patient care and failed abortion procedures. 

But Planned Parenthood said not all of the doctors are associated with the organization and would only make its doctors available to state investigators. 

Stelzer’s preliminary injunction will expire at 5 p.m. on June 28 for Planned Parenthood to seek review and injunctive relief from the Administrative Hearing Commission (AHC), the appropriate tribunal to oversee such a case. He also ordered each party to bear their own court costs. 

The AHC conducts hearings and oversees cases involving state agencies and private citizens. Former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon appointed three of the people who sit on the four-person panel, including the presiding commissioner. Republican Gov. Mike Parson recently appointed Philip Prewitt, who has been lauded by anti-abortion groups, to the commission. Since Prewitt was appointed while the General Assembly was not in session, he will be able to serve on the commission prior to receiving consent from the state Senate. 

Should the St. Louis clinic cease to be able to provide abortions, Missouri will become the only state in the nation without an abortion facility — and the first since just after the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing a woman’s right to privacy extended to abortion services. 

Missouri hospitals will be able to provide abortions in cases of medical emergencies. 

“The terrifying reality is that access is hanging on by a thread with a narrowing timeline,” Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an OBGYN at the Planned Parenthood clinic, said in a statement. “This creates uncertainty for the patients we serve.”

Planned Parenthood said patients who already have appointments made this week will continue to be provided with abortion services. She said Planned Parenthood does plan to “fight” the license decision in front of the AHC.

“We should all agree that, regardless of the number of Planned Parenthood facilities in Missouri, every step should be taken to ensure the protection, safety, and well-being of women’s healthcare,” Parson said Friday. “Planned Parenthood is losing its license because it failed to meet basic standards of care, placed multiple patients in life-threatening situations, performed multiple failed abortions where patients remained pregnant, and intentionally impeded the state’s health investigation by not allowing health inspectors to talk to the abortion doctors. If you don’t comply with the law, there will be consequences. If you don’t provide a standard of care that ensures the safety of women, you shouldn’t be allowed to operate. It’s that simple.”

He said if Planned Parenthood could “show it is abiding by the laws and regulations” imposed by the state, then the facility would have “every right, under the law, to have its license renewed.”

Planned Parenthood also took issue with state regulations regarding a required pelvic examination before an abortion procedure as part of the informed consent process. Doctors said last week they would not comply with state regulations requiring a pelvic examination on patients during the informed consent process — to be held 72 hours before an abortion procedure. Instead, doctors said they would only conduct the exam at the time of the procedure.

DHSS Director Randall Williams announced an emergency rule change Friday allowing doctors to use their discretion on whether to conduct a pelvic 72 hours before the procedure (when the informed consent process is to take place) or on the day of a procedure if there’s a medical reason to wait. With this change, patients won’t be potentially subjected to two exams. 

The change only applies to surgical abortions, not medical ones. 

Last month, Parson signed a law — set to go into effect in August — effectively banning abortions after eight weeks. It does not include exceptions for rape or incest, but it did have an emergency clause attached, meaning a portion of the bill went into effect immediately.

That provision requires both parents of a minor to be notified if she seeks an abortion and has been at the center of legal battles over multiple referendum petitions seeking to put the law to a vote of Missourians.