Judge rules Missouri’s last abortion clinic CAN remain open for now

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Missouri’s only abortion clinic will remain open for now after a St. Louis judge on Monday blocked state officials from closing it amid an ongoing fight over licensing. 

Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer granted Planned Parenthood’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the state from forcing the clinic to close.  

He had already granted the organization a temporary reprieve on May 31 that blocked state officials from shuttering the clinic the day its license to perform the procedure was set to lapse. 

His ruling ordered Missouri health officials to make a decision about renewing Planned Parenthood’s application to renew its license by June 21. 

The ruling kept Missouri from becoming the first state without an abortion clinic since the Supreme Court legalized the procedure nationwide in 1973. 

The courtroom win for abortion-rights advocates comes after a string of setbacks in legislatures around the US. 

The Republican Governor Mike Parson and state health officials in May declined to renew the clinic’s license to perform abortion procedures, citing concerns about patient safety, ‘failed surgical abortions’ and legal violations. 

Dr. Leana Wen, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called Stelzer’s ruling ‘a clear victory for our patients – and for people across Missouri,’ but said the threat against legal abortion remains. 

‘We’ve seen just how closely anti-health politicians came to ending abortion care for an entire state,’ Wen said in a statement. ‘We are in a state of emergency for women’s health in America.’ 

Stelzer’s ruling said he wasn’t determining whether the license should be approved or denied. 

But the judge noted that one issue in dispute is whether the health department can simply allow the abortion clinic’s license to lapse without taking any action.

‘The Court does not believe that an “official action” can include non-action,’ Stelzer wrote.

Stelzer issued a temporary restraining order on May 31 to allow the clinic to continue to perform abortions until a decision was made on the injunction request. 

The state issued subpoenas to staff doctors and former medical residents who worked at Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis facility, seeking their testimony about what an assistant attorney general called ‘grave concerns’ about patient safety. 

Clinic leaders said the move is part of a politically-motivated effort by an anti-abortion administration to eliminate the procedure in Missouri. 

According to Planned Parenthood, no state has been without a functioning abortion clinic since 1974, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

The fight over the clinic’s license comes as lawmakers in many conservative states, including Missouri, are passing new restrictions that take aim at Roe. 

Abortion opponents, emboldened by new conservative justices on the Supreme Court, hope federal courts will uphold laws that prohibit abortions before a fetus is viable outside the womb, the dividing line the high court set in Roe.

The abortion debate in Missouri intensified after Gov. Michael Parson signed legislation on May 24 to ban abortions at or beyond eight weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest.

The number of abortions performed in Missouri has declined every year for the past decade, reaching a low of 2,910 last year. 

Of those, an estimated 1,210 occurred at eight weeks or less of pregnancy, according to preliminary statistics from the state health department.

Missouri women also seek abortions in other states. 

In Kansas, about 3,300 of the 7,000 abortions performed in 2018 were for Missouri residents, according to the state’s health department. 

Illinois does not track the home states of women seeking abortions.

An abortion clinic is located just across the Mississippi River in Granite City, Illinois, less than 10 miles from the Planned Parenthood facility in St. Louis. 

Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinic in the Kansas City area is in Overland Park, Kansas, just 2 miles from the state line. 

State figures show a handful of Missouri hospitals also perform abortions, but those are relatively rare.  

Kentucky is one of many states within recent months which has passed or is considering some of the strictest bans regarding abortion access that the country has seen since the United States Supreme Court decided Roe vs. Wade.

Alabama recently passed what is widely considered to be the most restrictive of such laws, amounting to a near total ban on abortion from the moment of conception, with no exceptions for incest or rape, regardless of the age of the victim.   

There are many steps to get through between the latest batch of laws being passed and a challenge that could lead to the Supreme Court deciding on whether to take up the issue of reconsidering Roe vs. Wade. 

Those various potential paths are outlined below.

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