Lawyers for Planned Parenthood will ask a St. Louis Circuit Court judge to block Missouri health officials from using an investigation into a patient’s complaint to close the state’s only licensed abortion provider.
Planned Parenthood went to court Wednesday to prevent the state Department of Health and Senior Services from denying a renewed license to Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region. But Judge Michael Stelzer rescheduled the hearing for Thursday, a day before the clinic’s license expires.
In their request for a restraining order, the organization’s lawyers also asked Stelzer to bar state health officials from interviewing seven doctors at the St. Louis clinic.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, Planned Parenthood claims that the state is attempting to shut down the clinic by “unlawfully” tying the routine renewal of its license to the completion of the department’s investigation into a patient complaint that the Department of Health and Human Services has not disclosed to Planned Parenthood.
Planned Parenthood officials say the state wanted to interview the doctors and a nurse who work at the clinic before it issued a new license, an order the organization said it couldn't enforce because most are independent providers and not employees.
“If the court does not grant us a restraining order, Missouri will go dark and become the first state in the nation which does not provide abortion care,” Planned Parenthood President Dr. Leana Wen said this week. She said the state is using regulations to further decrease access to abortion.
"The state has illegally weaponized the licensing process," Wen said.
In the lawsuit, Planned Parenthood’s attorneys asked the court to compel the state to act on the organization’s renewal application.
Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an attending physician at the clinic, said this week that state health officials demanded that she and her colleagues, including medical trainees, “submit to interrogations 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 that we have always provided our patients,” McNicholas said.
Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a prepared release that the refusal of several clinic’s doctors to cooperate in the department’s investigation obstructed its ability to verify that Planned Parenthood was in compliance with state laws and regulations. He said the department must do that before renewing a license.
Williams said Planned Parenthood did not agree until May 22 to comply with state regulations requiring that doctors give pelvic exams while screening patients before abortions. He said that is aimed at increasing safety. He said Planned Parenthood did not agree until Tuesday to comply with state law that the same physician who counsels a patient seeking an abortion also performs the procedure.
“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,” Williams said.
McNicholas said she had been “forced to accept a Department of Health mandate to perform medically unnecessary and invasive pelvic exams that I know my patients do not need — exams that for some have the potential of retraumatizing — all in an effort to keep services acceptable.”
The court hearing follows a decision by Republican Gov. Mike Parson who signed a law criminalizing abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy. The law goes takes effect in August.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Parson said the clinic needed to correct “deficiencies” but declined to elaborate.
“It would be reckless for any judge to grant a temporary restraining order ruling before the state has taken action on a license renewal,” Parson said. “If you break the law, there are serious consequences.”
Missouri is one of several states to ban abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, often before women know they're pregnant. Doctors convicted of violating the Missouri law could be sent to prison.
Read Planned Parenthood's lawsuit:
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