Judge says Missouri’s lone abortion clinic must remain open for now

By Rachana Pradhan

Missouri’s only abortion clinic will remain open for now after a judge on Monday blocked state officials from closing it because of an ongoing licensing dispute.

The state judge’s ruling kept Missouri from becoming the first state without an abortion clinic since the Supreme Court legalized the procedure nationwide in 1973. Judge Michael Stelzer had already granted Planned Parenthood a temporary reprieve on May 31 that blocked state officials from shuttering a St. Louis clinic the day its license to perform the procedure was set to lapse.

In the latest decision, Stelzer wrote that Planned Parenthood's license would remain in effect for now, and directed Missouri health officials to make a decision about renewing the organization's license by June 21.

The ruling represents a blow to Republican Gov. Mike Parson and state health officials, who said the clinic had numerous violations that had to be addressed in order to renew the license. Missouri health officials said there was at least one incident in which patient safety “was gravely compromised." They also said there were instances of failed surgical abortions in which patients remained pregnant, as well as a failure to obtain a patient's "informed consent."

Planned Parenthood officials said the state was unlawfully conditioning a routine license decision on a vague investigation, and accused state officials of orchestrating a politically motivated probe to stamp out abortion. Missouri lawmakers in May banned most abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy, joining a group of conservative-led of states enacting early abortion bans.

Among the things the state demanded were interviews with seven physicians who had worked at the clinic. Planned Parenthood said it could not compel most of the physicians to submit to the interviews because they were not employees.

“Today’s ruling gives doctors like me the ability to wake up tomorrow and continue providing safe, legal abortion in the last health center in the state that provides abortion care," said Colleen McNicholas, one of the physicians who performs abortion at the St. Louis clinic. "For patients, that means for now, they can continue to make decisions about their bodies, lives and future in their home state."

Missouri is one of six states with just one clinic providing abortions, according to an analysis from Planned Parenthood and the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.