Planned Parenthood lawsuit challenges MO laws

Lisa Johnston |
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A lawsuit challenging Missouri abortion regulations is the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down abortion laws in Texas, but pro-life advocates here say they believe the Missouri laws will be upheld as constitutional.

Planned Parenthood affiliates in Missouri filed the federal lawsuit Nov. 30, asking the court to stop the laws, which require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and upgrade their facilities to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers. Similar lawsuits were filed in Alaska and North Carolina.

Missouri was the first state in the nation to enact the laws since the Roe vs. Wade decision. Pro-life advocates say they serve as safety measures to protect women who seek services at abortion clinics. If the laws are struck down, Planned Parenthood clinics in Springfield, Joplin, Columbia and Kansas City would be able to offer abortions. Right now, Planned Parenthood's St. Louis clinic is the only location in Missouri to provide abortions.

"No abortion clinic will ever be safe for unborn children, but the common-sense safety requirements Planned Parenthood is challenging are designed to protect women from undue harm at the hands of abortion providers," said Karen Nolkemper, executive director of the archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate.

"The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that these politically and ideologically motivated restrictions serve no medical purpose and lead to potentially dangerous and harmful consequences for patients seeking abortion," according to a statement from Planned Parenthood. "In its June decision, the Court spoke clearly, finding that admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements only fulfill one agenda — to keep women from accessing a constitutionally protected medical procedure. The time has come to strike down these unnecessary restrictions in Missouri."

The Supreme Court ruled June 27 that Texas abortion clinics don't have to comply with standards of ambulatory surgical centers, and their doctors aren't required to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

In Missouri, abortion clinics that perform five or more first-trimester, or any second- or third-trimester abortions in a month are required to be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers, and provide standard medical services, such as having CPR-trained personnel on site and a physician on the premises and immediately available to the patient in the recovery room. Clinics also are open to inspection from the Department of Health and Senior Services.

In 2015, a manager with the Department of Health and Senior Services told a Senate committee that during an earlier inspection of Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, the department discovered that not all pathology reports were being sent to the department as required by law. Planned Parenthood was given time to correct the deficiency, but no other action was taken. In 2013, the department's inspection of the clinic found several violations, such as expired drugs, "copious amounts of visible dust" in exam rooms and rust on equipment.

Missouri also passed a law in 2005 that requires all doctors who perform abortions to have lower-level clinical privileges at a hospital within 30 minutes distance from where the abortion is performed. In Texas, the law is more stringent, spelling out that the abortion doctor must have "active admitting privileges" at hospital within 30 miles of where the abortion is performed.

Missouri's ambulatory surgical center regulations enacted in the mid-1980's — but applying to all abortion facilities only since a law change in 2007 — separately require that abortion doctors have staff privileges at hospital within 15 minutes travel time or that there is a working arrangement between a hospital and the facility no more than 15 minutes away to provide emergency treatment to patients.

"It's astounding that Planned Parenthood claims (abortion) is for the health of women when it could have the exact opposite effect," said Deacon Sam Lee, a pro-life lobbyist with Campaign Life Missouri. "If their lawsuit is successful, that would mean the Department of Health and Senior Services could no longer go in and inspect these clinics. Other ambulatory surgical centers, such as urgent care centers and birthing centers, are subject to these inspections.

"This would carve out an exception for abortion clinics," Deacon Lee said.

The heart of the issue is that Planned Parenthood "can't find doctors in the local community who are willing to do abortions," Deacon Lee said. "They are having to import doctors from other areas ... who are going from one clinic to another. I think it's reasonable to require those doctors have some sort of relationship with the hospital to take care of their patients if they're injured. It's not a risk-free procedure."

Defendants in the lawsuit include Attorney General Chris Koster, who will be succeeded in January by incoming Republican Josh Hawley. Hawley, who was endorsed by Missouri Right to Life, served as an attorney in the Hobby Lobby religious liberty case. The suit also names Peter Lyskowski, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Newly elected Gov. Eric Greitens is expected to appoint a new director in the new year.

Abortions among Missouri residents fell by 36 percent between 2005 and 2014, according to vital statistics from statistics from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

"We are not surprised by this lawsuit, but are hopeful that Missouri law will in fact be upheld because of its distinction from Texas law," said Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference. "The MCC will continue to support pro-life legislation in the coming session as it has for the past 50 years." 

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