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With Missouri’s last abortion clinic targeted, Illinois braces for influx of patients

FILE - In this May 17, 2019 file photo, Teresa Pettis, right, greets a passerby outside the Planned
Abortion opponent Teresa Pettis, right, speaks to a passerby during a protest outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis on May 17, the day the Missouri Legislature passed a measure banning the procedure at eight weeks of pregnancy.
(Jim Salter / Associated Press)

A Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis may be forced to stop performing abortions as soon as Saturday, leaving Missouri as the only state without a place for women to legally have the procedure.

The facility’s annual license to provide abortions is set to expire this month, and Missouri’s health department is threatening to refuse to renew it unless doctors consent to “inappropriate interrogation, bordering on harassment,” the nonprofit said in a statement Tuesday.

“This is not a drill,” said Dr. Leana Wen, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “This is not a warning. This is a real public health crisis. This week, Missouri would be the first state in the country to go dark.”

Faced with that prospect, abortion providers in neighboring Illinois were bracing for an influx of patients.

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“If Missouri blocks the last remaining abortion provider … in the state, it’s going to leave more than 1.1 million women of reproductive age to face a world where they’re blocked from accessing abortion services,” said Alison Dreith, the deputy director of the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Ill., 10 miles from downtown St. Louis.

“How do we get more staff in the clinic, so we can continue the same service of care that we’ve always given our patients? Can we get some volunteers? Do we open an extra day? Do we have earlier start times? Do we schedule differently?”

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services did not immediately respond to phone calls or emails. Dr. Randall Williams, the department director, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that state officials would decide by Friday on whether to renew the clinic’s license.

Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit Tuesday in the Circuit Court of St. Louis, seeking to prevent the state from blocking the facility from providing abortions.

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If the license is not renewed by Friday, Missouri would become the only state in the nation with no health center providing women with access to legal, safe abortion. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade that the Constitution provides a fundamental “right to privacy” that protects a woman’s right to abortion.

“This is the world that the Trump administration and Republican public officials across the country have been pushing for — a world where abortion care is illegal and inaccessible in this country,” Dr. Wen said of the move to force the St. Louis clinic to close.

“We want our patients to know that we will never abandon the women of Missouri,” she added. “We will help you to get the care that you need — no matter what.”

Missouri is one of six states — along with Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia — with just one abortion clinic.

A raft of states, including Missouri, have passed contentious laws this year blocking virtually all abortions. Last week, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill outlawing abortions on or beyond the eighth week of pregnancy — with no exceptions for rape or incest.

“We are sending a strong signal to the nation that, in Missouri, we stand for life, protect women’s health, and advocate for the unborn,” the Republican governor said in a statement after signing the law. “All life has value and is worth protecting.”

Abortion is still legal across the nation. None of the stringent laws have taken effect so far, and all are likely to face lengthy court battles.

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However, over the years, lawmakers in conservative Southern and Midwestern states have successfully imposed a slew of restrictions on abortion providers.

In Missouri, state law requires women to wait 72 hours for the procedure after receiving counseling, mandates doctors perform what Planned Parenthood calls “invasive and medically unnecessarily” pelvic exams on patients, and demands abortion providers hold local hospital admitting privileges.

The result is that Missouri has already shut down a number of facilities that provide abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports abortion rights, there were five abortion providers in Missouri in 2011.

Last year, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia, Mo., had to stop performing abortions because it could not comply with a state requirement that physicians have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

According to Planned Parenthood’s legal filings, Missouri health department officials dropped in unannounced to the St. Louis clinic in early April, stating that they were investigating a complaint from a patient and requesting six patient medical records and other documentation.

A little over a week later, the state formally requested that seven doctors and a nurse submit to questioning before the clinic’s license is renewed. The state refused to provide any information about the subject matter of the complaint, but it later indicated the questioning could lead to criminal referrals or board review for those physicians.

None of the physicians are employed by Planned Parenthood. The nurse and two of the most senior physicians agreed to be interviewed by state officials, but the other doctors — some of whom have completed their rotation at the clinic — refused to submit themselves to questioning.

The clinic in Granite City sits just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis — in a state that, politically, might as well be a million miles away from Missouri.

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On Tuesday, the Illinois House passed the Reproductive Health Act, a sweeping bill that affirms women’s reproductive health rights and eliminates laws that restrict abortions later in pregnancy and impose criminal penalties on physicians who perform them. The bill, which would also require insurance companies to provide coverage for abortions, now moves to the Senate.

“It’s a lot of highs and lows today, and we’re just scrambling to put all those pieces together to best support our patients,” Dreith said.

The clinic’s senior staff held a crisis management meeting Tuesday to discuss how its 30 employees would cope with demand from Missouri, she said.

Even if the state blocks the St. Louis clinic from performing abortions, it will not close and will continue to provide services such as birth control and health screenings.

“Planned Parenthood has served Missouri for more than 87 years and we will fight to provide care for another century,” Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an OB-GYN of Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, said in a statement.

“We are currently open for all services, and our top priority is to ensure access to abortion continues so that every patient can access high-quality care in Missouri.”


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