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Meet Colleen McNicholas, St. Louis Planned Parenthood’s new chief medical officer at the center of the licensing fight

Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an OBGYN at the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis at the forefront of a legal battle with the state, was named the chief medical officer of facility last week — a “first of its kind” position. 

McNicholas already has more than 10 years of experience as an OBGYN and was an attending physician as well as an associate professor and director of the Ryan Residency Collaborative for the Washington University School of Medicine. 

Before her appointment, Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri (PPSLRSWMO) contracted medical directors from Washington University for clinical leadership. 

“We are incredibly honored to welcome Dr. McNicholas as our new Chief Medical Officer,” Cathy Williams, the interim CEO and president of PPSLRSWMO, said in a statement. “She’s proven herself to be a cutting-edge reproductive health expert and a fierce reproductive rights advocate. I’m so excited to leverage her talent, not only for her expertise on our current range of services, but because Dr. McNicholas will look forward to develop new services and delivery strategies to reach those left behind by the current safety net health care system.” 

The Planned Parenthood facility, the lone abortion clinic in the state, is embroiled with Missouri health officials in a legal battle over its license. It is allowed to continue providing abortion services in the interm before the Administrative Hearing Commission takes up the case versus the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) in October. 

McNicholas has been a fierce opponent of the state’s decision not to renew its license earlier this summer. 

The Missouri Times asked McNicholas a few questions about her experience — both as a doctor and Missourian. Below is a conversation between The Missouri Times (TMT) and McNicholas (CM), with her answers slightly edited for clarity. 

TMT: What is your first priority in your new role? 

CM: To get to know the people who make Planned Parenthood the organization it is — the folks who work for us and the people who trust us with their healthcare. 

TMT: What has surprised you the most about this licensing fight? 

CM: In all my work in abortion care — specifically the public advocacy work — I continue to be surprised at how easily elected officials find it to disregard the science and public health impact all to meet a political end. All of the major medical and public health organizations are united in their opposition to this type of political posturing. Evidence-based medicine is the end result of a rigorous posture. 

As a clinical researcher, I have myself designed and executed studies that didn’t show the result I expected — the difference between true stewards of public health and politically motivated extremists. Someday, hopefully soon, the legislature, the governor, and the Department of Health and Senior Services will take their responsibility to Missourian’s health seriously. 

TMT: With all the attention the clinic is getting, is there anything in particular you want people to know about the facility? 

CM: The fight for abortion access is just one small piece of work we do. Planned Parenthood, specifically in Missouri, is fighting to ensure people have access to the full range of contraceptives. 

We are fighting to be part of the Medicaid network, and more broadly, fighting to expand Medicaid to more Missourians. We are fighting to protect Title IX. We have worked to fill the gaps in available syphilis treatment. 

I guess what I am saying is we are truly a comprehensive care organization and take our responsibility to the community seriously. 

TMT: Is there one state in particular you feel has gotten reproductive rights right? 

CM: There are probably some obvious answers, like Oregon, but I want to take the opportunity to lift up that true champions of reproductive rights are more than just access to and funding of abortion. It’s policies that ensure paid parental leave, pay equity, and affordable childcare. The states that can take a few hundred steps back, open their lens, and incorporate the many intersections that influence people’s reproductive lives are the ones that will get it right. 

TMT: What keeps you going when you start to feel discouraged by what is going on in Missouri?

CM: There are a few things that I can always fall back on when things are starting to feel overwhelming. The first and most important is my interaction with patients. Every patient has a different story, an important and valid reason for their abortion. These experiences are all anyone needs to remain committed. 

The second is being a parent. We try to live our lives grounded in equity — which means being intention about engaging with all sorts of volunteer and justice communities. The opportunity to see so many people doing so much good work fuels inspiration. 

Outside of my work, I stay engaged with other justice movements. And I use music and quick escapes to the water to refuel. 

TMT: Who is your biggest inspiration?

CM: I’m not sure if there is a single person, but globally I continue to be inspired by people who overcome. There are some who face adversity after adversity. There are people who, despite a system that is designed to keep them out, find their way in and to the top. These are the people who inspire me!

TMT: Are you from Missouri? What’s your favorite thing about the state?

CM: I grew up in Chicago but have done nearly all my medical training in Missouri. 

There are so many things to love about Missouri. I love that St. Louis has figured out a way to make some of its cultural cornerstones, like the zoo, available to everyone. I love the beauty of the Ozarks and the diversity of the city. St. Louis is the only home my little guy has ever known. 

For the latest on the licensing fight between Planned Parenthood and DHSS, click here.