Jaco: The future of abortion in Missouri is in the hands of one man … for now

We’ll know by Friday whether Missouri will become the only state without an abortion clinic, and whether politicized “health” regulations aimed at shutting off abortion access will succeed. However, it turns out, expect men to decide whether Missouri women will have the right to decide what to do with their own bodies.

While this, technically, has nothing to do with Missouri’s new anti-abortion law that outlaws abortions after eight weeks and makes no exceptions for rape or incest, it’s an interwoven part of the anti-abortion jihad engineered by the overwhelmingly white male Republican power structure that has a stranglehold on state government.

Dr. Randall Williams, the head of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, unilaterally wrote “health” regulations requiring a woman to have two digital pelvic exams, where a doctor inserts his fingers inside a woman’s vagina, before she could have an abortion.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology says pelvic exams like that are “invasive, unnecessary, and counter to good medical practice” and that pelvic exams should be performed only in cases in which a doctor is looking for potentially serious medical abnormalities such as cancerous tumors or pre-cancerous growths.

Williams backed off the two-exam requirement after a firestorm of criticism and now says only one medically unnecessary and traumatizing pelvic exam is required for women seeking an abortion. Williams, hired as Missouri’s top health official by then-Gov. Eric Greitens, got the job after resigning as North Carolina’s health director.

Williams was seemingly forced from his job in the Tarheel State because, as state health director in 2016, he declared that water from wells near coal ash storage ponds was safe for rural residents to drink, and rescinded a state “do-not-drink” notice. But North Carolina’s state toxicologist, Ken Rudo, testified that the water was unsafe and that Williams was “playing down” the health consequences, presumably to stay on the good side of Duke Energy, which owns the coal ash dumping ponds.

Despite that, Williams was hired by Greitens. And when Greitens slinked off in disgrace, his No. 2, Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, became governor. He, too, supported Williams and his medically questionable regulations on abortions. This, of course, is the same unelected Gov. Parson who signed the new radical anti-abortion law, tried to sneak into St. Louis for a friendly TV interview the next day, and ended up hiding behind a phalanx of burly security guards as a half-dozen angry pro-choice suburban moms confronted him as he slipped into the TV studio.

Williams’ Department of Health and Senior Services allegedly found several “health violations” at the Planned Parenthood clinic on Forest Park Avenue, Missouri’s only abortion provider. They denied the clinic a license to perform abortions.

Planned Parenthood claimed that the violations were bogus and that Williams was upset because Planned Parenthood doctors were refusing to perform the rape-y pelvic exams.

They went to court, and Circuit Court Judge Thomas Stelzer agreed with Planned Parenthood, up to a point. He issued an injunction to keep the state from closing the clinic, but also ruled that Planned Parenthood would have to go before a state arbitration board, just like every other business, individual or organization that has a dispute with a state agency.

That would be the state of Missouri’s Administrative Hearing Commission, made up of four administrative judges. They don’t meet as a panel, but assign an individual judge to each individual case. Among members of the commission is Philip Prewitt, appointed by Parson earlier this month. Prewitt has made no bones about his anti-abortion feelings and was reprimanded by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2015, while he was a judge in Macon County, Mo., because Prewitt raised money for an anti-abortion charity on his Facebook page.

But Prewitt didn’t draw this case. Instead, it went to an administrative judge from Chesterfield, Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi, who began his state career as an assistant attorney general under then-Attorney Gen. Jay Nixon in 2001.  Dandamudi was probably best known before this for ruling in an administrative hearing that Stan Kroenke’s Rams were due a sales tax refund from the city.

That decision was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court, which is the thing about rulings from the Administrative Hearing Commission: All of them are subject to review by the courts. So however Dandamudi rules Friday, the whole thing will end up back in court.

So, for now, one man — Dandamudi — will decide whether or not Missouri will still have an abortion clinic. If he rules against Planned Parenthood and in favor of Williams’ health department, Planned Parenthood will stop offering abortion services Friday.

Then, they’d have to go back to court, trying to get an order re-opening the abortion clinic. And then, the courts would have to decide whether Williams is as wrong about abortion as he was about safe drinking water in North Carolina.


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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