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Thanks to This Lawmaker, Missouri Will Soon Have Only One Abortion Clinic for 2.3 Million Women

Missouri Senate Leader Kurt Schaefer pressured the state's independent university to revoke admitting privileges to one of the few abortion providers in Missouri, leaving just one clinic in St. Louis to serve the entire state.

by Colleen Curry
Sep 30 2015, 5:30pm

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, speaks to colleagues on the last day of the regular session Friday, May 13, 2011, in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/Kelley McCall)

As Republican lawmakers in Congress held a five-hour hearing on Planned Parenthood's alleged sale of fetal tissue on Capitol Hill this week, state-level legislators elsewhere in the country have seized the moment to wage their own campaigns against local Planned Parenthood chapters.

Following July's release of videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood executives discussing the sale of fetal tissue, which were filmed and distributed by an anti-abortion/pro-life activist group, Missouri Senate Leader Kurt Schaefer created and became the chair of a Senate Sanctity of Life Committee, which he said he would use to investigate Missouri-based Planned Parenthood clinics and whether they engaged in the illegal sale of fetal tissue.

It was one of many investigations launched in several states to examine whether clinics had participated in behavior similar to what was discussed on the videos. So far, none of the investigations have found wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood.

In Missouri, Attorney General Chris Koster announced that a thorough investigation by his office had concluded that there was no unlawful sale of fetal tissue by Planned Parenthood in Missouri.

"The evidence reviewed by my investigators supports Planned Parenthood's representation that fetal tissue is handled in accordance with Missouri law," Koster said in a statement. "We have discovered no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Planned Parenthood's St. Louis facility is selling fetal tissue."

Related: The Satanic Temple Is Suing Missouri Over Its Abortion Law

But Schaefer used the committee in other ways to push an anti-abortion agenda in the state. Schaefer's committee began to investigate whether the state university, the University of Missouri, was helping to fund any abortions by its relationship with Planned Parenthood in the university's town of Columbia. They subpoenaed documents and school leaders and found that the only connection was that the physician who performs abortions at the local clinic, Colleen McNicholas, had "refer-and-follow" privileges at the university hospital, which allowed her to refer a patient to the hospital for care and then look at her medical records.

Following the subpoena and pressure from the Committee, the university Thursday announced that it had decided to end all "refer-and-follow" privileges, including McNicholas's.

"After a review of University of Missouri Health Care policies and procedures, the executive committee of the medical staff of MU Health Care voted unanimously to discontinue "refer and follow" as a category of privileges at MU Health Care facilities," the university said in a statement. "The review of MU Health Care policies and privileges was prompted by inquiries from various members of the legislature and public to MU's chancellor."

The university declined to answer specific questions about the decision when contacted by VICE News. Schaefer also did not respond to calls from VICE News.

Related: A Drone Is Flying Abortion Pills From Germany to Poland This Weekend

According to Missouri law, an abortion provider must have admitting privileges at hospital within 30 miles of the clinic in order to conduct abortions. Without refer-and-follow privileges, the Columbia Planned Parenthood will no longer be able to provide abortions.

The day after the university's decision was announced, the state Department of Health and Senior Services told Planned Parenthood it would revoke the clinic's license to perform abortions if McNicholas loses her privileges, according to the Missouri Times.

Schaefer boasted of his accomplishment following the university's announcement.

"From day one when we learned of this scandal, I vowed that we would get MU out of the abortion business,'" Schaefer said in a statement. "Thanks to the persistence of our investigation and the public pressure applied by many defenders of life, we achieved that outcome and many unborn lives will hopefully be saved as a result."

Alison Dreith of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri told VICE News that Missouri is in the middle of pro-life "witch hunt."

"[Schaefer] started this Sanctity of Life Committee this summer to investigate Planned Parenthood after the distorted videos came out, and he's really done nothing with that committee to investigate allegations of fetal tissue donations whatsoever," she said. "It's really been an attack on the Planned Parenthood there in Columbia."

Dreith noted that Schaefer had once described himself as a moderate while running for state senate, but is now in a contentious primary for attorney general against a fellow Republican and is trying to appeal to conservative voters.

Related: As Women Die from Illegal Abortions in Brazil, Presidential Candidates Remain Silent

The decision by the university and Schafer, she said, would result in having only one abortion-provider left in the state, in St. Louis. Since the state also passed a mandatory 72-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion, patients would have to travel to St. Louis twice in three days, which could make it financially difficult for many women, she said.

"Mizzou is an independent institution and caved into Schaefer's pressures," Dreith said. "I think they just got bullied and scared and decided to sever ties in hopes that funding wouldn't come at a detriment."

The Missouri law requiring hospital admitting privileges is one of dozens of similar laws passed in states around the country, particularly in the south, in recent years in order to restrict women's access to abortion, according to Julie Rikelman, Litigation Director for the Center for Reproductive Rights in Washington, DC, which has mounted legal challenges to similar laws in many states.

"What we're seeing in Missouri is what we're seeing in other parts of the country, which is that state laws are being passed that are supposed to be about the health and safety but are really underhanded," Rikelman said. "These admitting privileges laws are not about making abortion safer, which is why major medical organizations don't support them."

The Center has asked the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of a similar admitting privileges law in Texas, which is under consideration by the court now. That law has forced about half of Texas's abortion clinics to close, she said. The group has also asked the court to rule on the constitutionality of a second law requiring abortion clinics in Texas to be ambulatory surgical centers, which she said if allowed to take effect would close 75 percent of the state's clinics.

Schaefer's actions signal something of a reemergence of the culture wars in Missouri. The Missouri Right to Life Group, which supported Schaefer in pressuring the university to cut ties with Planned Parenthood, says it would now like to see the university end its stem cell research. Susan Klein, the group's legislative liaison, told the Columbia Tribune that their stand against embryonic stem cell research is absolute.

"A state-funded university with our tax dollars should not be doing research on aborted baby parts, embryonic stem cell research or human cloning," Klein said.

Related: Abortion Rights in Ireland 

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue filed a lawsuit against the city demanding the release of 911 calls and ambulance records from the city's Planned Parenthood clinic in order to collect data they can use to bolster complaints to the health department over abortions being performed there. The city released heavily-redacted records in response, citing federal patient privacy laws.

"I think the overriding issue really is this is about politics rather than women's health and safety," Rikelman said.

Planned Parenthood of St. Louis and Mid-Missouri, which did not immediately respond to questions from VICE News, told the Kansas City Star it was considering whether to mount a legal challenge against the university's decision, seek hospital privileges elsewhere, or reapply for hospital privileges with the university system to avoid having to shut down.

Watch VICE News' documentary Abortion Rights in Ireland: