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Missouri could become only state without abortion provider next month over license renewal fight

As Missouri’s new, restrictive abortion law is set to go into effect later this summer, the state’s only abortion clinic says it’s going to be forced to cease those services this week due to a fight over its license renewal.

Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis region filed a lawsuit Tuesday in St. Louis Circuit Court for a temporary restraining order to allow the clinic to continue providing abortion services past the end of the month. Planned Parenthood representatives said it has been in a back-and-forth with the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) over state health officials’ demand to interview doctors at the facility.

A hearing has been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Missouri only has one abortion clinic — the Planned Parenthood facility in St. Louis — and would become the lone state without an abortion provider if the court doesn’t intervene before its license is set to expire on Friday.

The licensing fight hinges on the request from the state for the facility to make all doctors at the clinic — even those who aren’t affiliated with Planned Parenthood — subject to interviews for an investigation, Planned Parenthood officials said Tuesday.

A DHSS spokesperson did not respond to email or phone requests for comment Tuesday. It later released a timeline of events and defended its position. 

“DHSS will continue to act in good faith to do our statutorily required duty to regulate facilities to help keep people safe and assure compliance with the law,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of DHSS, said in a statement. “The unprecedented refusal by Planned Parenthood to fully cooperate as they have in the past heightens our regulators’ concerns about what their investigation has revealed to date.”

Officials contended it would make only the Planned Parenthood doctors available to interviews in an effort to compromise. Dr. Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called the request for interviews “inappropriate and suspicious interrogation.”

“As a former health commissioner and public health official, I have no other words to describe what is happening then the weaponization of the licensing process,” Wen told reporters Tuesday morning. “It has nothing to do with medicine and everything to do with politics.”

“It has nothing to do with medicine and everything to do with politics.”

Wen said the timing of the licensing renewal fight isn’t lost on her. Last week, Gov. Mike Parson signed a sweeping abortion bill into law, banning abortion after eight weeks. It only included exemptions for medical emergencies. Doctors who violate the law, which goes into effect at the end of August, could potentially face up to 15 years in prison; women would not be prosecuted.

Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an OBGYN at the St. Louis clinic, said state health officials have requested she — along with her colleagues and medical “trainees” — “to submit to interrogation with no explanation and making clear that we could be opened up to criminal proceedings or board review.”

“Let me be clear: this is harassment, an attempted intimidation of doctors at the highest level of government in order to stop us from providing the legal, necessary, and exceptional care we have always provided our patients,” McNicholas said.

Additionally, she decried the mandate for pelvic exams as “medically unnecessary” and potentially traumatizing for her patients.  

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, who represents the district which houses the abortion clinic, questioned the state’s demands in a letter submitted to DHSS Director Randall Williams Tuesday.

“Through these actions, I believe DHSS is threatening the health of women all across the state, and I further believe these actions could have disastrous impacts on the health of all women in Missouri,” Nasheed, a Democrat, said. “I believe the requirement that doctors submit to questioning by the Department is intimidating and may constitute harassment, meant to have a chilling effect on those who provide abortion services in our state. I believe such hostile actions against the Planned Parenthood facility must end, and the clinic should receive a license for another year.”

Hope Clinic — located just across the border in Illinois near downtown St. Louis — reaffirmed its support for the Planned Parenthood facility Tuesday.

“The actions of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services against Planned Parenthood in St. Louis are nothing more than harassment and intimidation of the healthcare providers. This is not about improving the safety or health of its residents,” Dr. Erin King, the executive director of the clinic, said in a statement. “Reproductive health in Missouri is in a state of emergency — which is quickly spreading to the entire country.”

Also Tuesday, the ACLU of Missouri submitted a referendum petition to Missouri’s secretary of state to bring the abortion law to voters. If the referendum successfully makes it through the process, it would require a statewide vote before the abortion law could go into effect.

“The Constitution gives pregnant individuals the right to make the decision whether to end a pregnancy,” Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement. “We will make sure that abortion remains legal in Missouri.”