JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Abortions can once again be practiced at the Columbia Planned Parenthood affiliate due to a ruling from a federal judge.
U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey has sided with Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri (PPKM) in their case for a permanent injunction against Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS). The injunction will block the DHSS’ decision to revoke the clinic’s ambulatory surgical center (ASC) license.
The case arose after an investigation last year by the Senate Sanctity of Life Committee chaired by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, found that the doctor providing abortions at the Planned Parenthood affiliate in had obtained her legally-required medical privileges from the University of Missouri Hospital. After intense scrutiny, the hospital decided to drop the privileges for Dr. Colleen McNicolas, leaving the clinic without a physician to perform medical abortions.
The DHSS almost immediately revoked the affiliate’s ASC license, but PPKM pointed out that the department had been much more lenient in a prior case of license revocation with the Surgical Center of Creve Coeur. That facility had multiple “immediate problems” and also went without a doctor for an amount of time.
In her decision, Laughrey said that the DHSS violated the equal protection clause within the 14th Amendment, which dictates that the government nor a government entity can discriminate between “similarly situated entities.” She made it clear that within Missouri statute, abortion facilities shared more similarities with other ASCs than differences.
“The only regulatory distinction identified by the parties between the hospital privileges required for a general ASC and an abortion facility ASC is that a physician at a general ASC must have privileges at a licensed hospital ‘in the community,’ and a physician performing abortions must have staff privileges at a hospital ‘within fifteen (15) minutes’ travel time from the facility,'” she wrote. “As discussed below, that distinction has no bearing on the statutory process for revoking an ASC license or DHSS’s historical practices when revoking an ASC license.”
Laughrey also intoned that political pressure had more to do with the DHSS’s decision than any cause of concern for the welfare of the general public.
“The evidence submitted to the Court indicates that DHSS’s unprecedented hasty actions were likely the result of political pressure being exerted by Missouri legislators and the Department’s perception that if it did not act in accordance with the legislature’s desires, its budget would be cut,” she wrote. “DHSS’s disparate treatment of PPKM cannot be justified by political pressure or public opposition to PPKM.”
PPKM President and CEO Laura McQuade celebrated the decision.
“The decision today confirms what PPKM has long known – that the state of Missouri unfairly targeted Planned Parenthood and its staff for providing safe, legal abortion, which jeopardized countless Mid-Missouri patients who need access to critical health care options,” she said in a statement. “Let this win show, PPKM will answer every ideological attack with fervent conviction that access to safe, legal abortion is a right for which we will always fight.”
Schaefer was less enthused by the judgment.
“I make no apology for my role in uncovering the fact that tax dollars were being used to enable abortions in Missouri,” he said in a statement. “I disagree with the judgement, I do not believe that the federal government can force Missourians to pay for abortions, and I encourage Attorney General [Chris] Koster to appeal immediately to enforce long-standing state law.”
Senate majority leaders also called on Koster to appeal. President Pro Tem Ron Richard said the judge’s opinion was “poorly reasoned,” and Assistant Majority Floor Leader Bob Onder, who served on the Sanctity of Life Committee, said that the court did not recognize the legislature’s rights to represent its constituents.
“This decision, while in my view incorrect, was sadly predictable,” Richard said. “This judge has a track record of left-leaning rulings, and I am confident, that if appealed, the higher court will promptly overturn this poorly reasoned opinion.”
Richard continued by criticizing Koster’s effort in representing the legislature, saying he even asked the attorney general to appoint outside counsel. However, he still urged Koster to appeal.
“He declined my request and offered up a weak, timid defense of the Senate’s position – virtually ensuring that the court’s opinion would be unfavorable,” Richard said. “Going forward, I strongly encourage Attorney General Koster to appeal the lower court’s decision as soon as possible.”
UPDATED – 10:00 a.m., May 12, 2016: Added comments from Richard.