Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis may be forced to close

Missouri’s only remaining abortion clinic, the Planned Parenthood facility on Forest Park Avenue, will be forced to stop performing abortions as of the end of the day Friday unless Planned Parenthood gets a restraining order to stop the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) from closing it.

As Planned Parenthood begins its court fight, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has announced it is launching a petition to get a constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion rights on the ballot for statewide voter approval in 2020. The ACLU says that once it reaches the threshold of 100,000 signatures on the petitions, the harsh new anti-abortion law signed by Gov. Mike Parson last week will be blocked from going into effect until the statewide vote is held.

The two-pronged counterattack by abortion rights advocates in Missouri comes a week after the state enacted one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the country.  The law outlaws abortions after eight weeks of gestation, provides no exceptions for rape or incest, and threatens doctors who violate the law with 15 years in prison.

The state has said it will decide Friday whether the Planned Parenthood clinic, 4251 Forest Park Avenue in the Central West End, will be forced to stop providing abortions. At issue is renewal of the clinic’s license, and the demand by DHSS that it be allowed to interview all seven doctors, including medical students and residents, who work at the clinic.

National Planned Parenthood President Dr. Leana Wen, who received her medical degree from Washington University, said DHSS would not rule out criminal or medical ethics charges against the physicians after the interviews and refused to specify what the interviews — which Wen termed “interrogations” — would be about.

“The state insists the seven doctors, who include medical students, are subject to interrogations that could cause them to lose their medical licenses or face criminal charges,” Wen said. “This is a weaponization of the licensing process. This politicizing of the medical process will end access to abortion in Missouri.”

Dr. Colleen McNicholas performs abortions at the St. Louis clinic, as well as in Oklahoma City and at the clinic in Wichita, Kan., clinic where Dr. George Tiller performed abortions before being assassinated by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder in 2009. She claims the state refuses to say what subjects the interviews would cover.

“In the past days, officials from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services have demanded me and my colleagues to submit to interrogations,” she said. “They made it clear we could be open to criminal charges or board proceedings. This is state-sanctioned dystopia.”

DHSS did not respond to questions about the exact nature of the proposed interviews with the doctors.

Helene Krasnoff, vice president of public policy litigation for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said: “The state of Missouri has refused to give us the topics or scope of the interviews. They have told us they are ‘investigating’ a large number of ‘deficiencies’ but haven’t told us anything more.”

Planned Parenthood’s first hearing on its request for a restraining order against the state comes Wednesday afternoon. If a restraining order is not granted, the state could order Missouri’s only abortion provider to stop performing abortions after Friday. In that case, Planned Parenthood says, it is working with both a Planned Parenthood clinic in Belleville and the Women’s Hope Center in Granite City to provide abortions in Illinois for Missouri women.

Meanwhile, the Missouri ACLU has decided not to take the state to federal court to challenge the constitutionality of the new anti-abortion law. With ACLU branches in states such as Alabama already moving cases against abortion restrictions through the federal courts, the St. Louis-based Missouri ACLU has instead decided to attempt to put abortion rights on the 2020 ballot for a statewide vote.

The Missouri ACLU has filed a referendum petition with Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, seeking certification so a campaign can begin to get 100,000 signatures of registered Missouri voters from across the state on a petition to put a constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion access on the 2020 statewide ballot.

Tony Rothert, legal director of the Missouri ACLU, said, “We will make sure that abortion remains legal in Missouri.”

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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