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A Judge Just Saved Missouri's Last Abortion Clinic — for Now

Missouri was hours away from becoming the first state in decades without a functioning facility.

by Emma Ockerman
May 31 2019, 6:45pm

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A judge just allowed Missouri’s only abortion clinic to temporarily stay open, just hours before the state would have become the first in decades without a functioning facility.

St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer sided with the St. Louis Planned Parenthood Friday afternoon — nearly 11 hours before the clinic would’ve been forced to stop performing abortions — in a tense fight that would’ve cost more than a million women their only option in Missouri. The ruling granted Planned Parenthood a temporary order that prevented the clinic’s license from expiring at midnight.

But the order, however, only extends their license for another week, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Planned Parenthood is scheduled to be back in the St. Louis courtroom June 4.

“This is a victory for women across Missouri, but this fight is far from over. We have seen just how vulnerable access to abortion care is in Missouri — and in the rest of the country,” Leana Wen, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood, wrote on Twitter after the ruling. “We'll keep fighting these attempts to end access to healthcare — no matter what.”

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region sued the state health department earlier this week for withholding the license of its local abortion clinic until the organization submitted to what the clinic deemed unneeded interviews. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services insisted on interviewing all physicians at the clinic, regardless of whether or not they work for Planned Parenthood directly.

But the clinic didn’t want to submit to the interviews and already complies with other burdensome requirements, like transfer agreements with local hospitals, inspections, and two pelvic examinations on every woman who wants a surgical abortion, according to advocates.

Missouri is just one of six U.S. states that have only one abortion clinic — making it particualrly vulnerable to a sudden closure that can strain access to reproductive health care even more. Similarly restrictive requirements have been used to threaten the remaining clinics in Kentucky and Mississippi, too.

Missouri forced the closure of its second abortion clinic in Columbia last year. The clinic was unable to secure physician and hospital admitting privileges to comply with a new state requirement. The laws do little to impact patient care, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

The Supreme Court is currently considering whether a similar regulation requiring admitting privileges is unconstitutional. And in 2016, the high court justices also struck down a similar law in Texas.

The judge’s ruling in the Missouri case came less than a week after the state’s Republican governor, Mike Parson, signed a restrictive abortion ban into law that outlaws abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy, before most people know they’re pregnant.

Parson supported the closure of the St. Louis’ clinic and said Wednesday that the facility had limited time to “answer for the deficiencies to the Department of Health.” He did not outline what the “deficiencies” were, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but the state health department alleged the clinic experienced "failed surgical abortions in which patients remained pregnant."

Piling rules and regulations on abortion clinics are just one way to restrict access to care, however. This year, several conservative-led states — plus Democrat-led Louisiana — have passed so called “heartbeat” bans that stop doctors from performing abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Alabama also passed a near-total ban on abortions.

The aim of such restrictive abortions laws, none of which are in effect, is to trigger a lawsuit that would make its way to the newly conservative Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Cover image: Teresa Pettis, 21, right, greets a passerby outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, Friday, May 17, 2019. Pettis was one of a small number of abortion opponents protesting outside the clinic on the day the Missouri Legislature passed a sweeping measure banning abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy. (AP Photo/Jim Salter)