Court to decide whether abortion services in Missouri will end on Friday

Planned Parenthood's license set to expire

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

(CNN) - The fate of abortion in Missouri will be argued in court Thursday as Planned Parenthood fights the state for refusing to renew the license it needs to continue offering the service in its St. Louis clinic.

That annual license expires on Friday, and without it, abortion services in Missouri will be no more -- making it the first state in more than 45 years to no longer offer the procedure.

The lack of a license would not mean the end of the health center. It would still provide care including birth control, STD testing and treatment, cancer screenings and more, explained Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Bonyen Lee-Gilmore. But the reality of what this would mean for abortion access is stark.

"This is not a drill. This is not a warning. This is a real public health crisis," Dr. Leana Wen, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement earlier this week.

"Missouri would be the first state in the country to go dark -- without a health center that provides safe, legal abortion care," denying access to "more than a million women of reproductive age" living in the state, she said.

Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, which has provided abortions for more than two decades, filed suit Tuesday against Missouri Gov. Michael Parson and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which administers the license the clinic needs. The suit requests a restraining order against the state, in order to avoid the disruption of services.

An emergency hearing on this case originally was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon in the Circuit Court of St. Louis. But it was then postponed to late Thursday morning for reasons "outside everybody's control," said Judge Michael Steltzer.

The court filing says the withholding of the license is another tactic in a years-long effort to "restrict abortion access and deny Missourians their right to choose abortion."

On May 24, the governor "signed into law a bill banning abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy, without exceptions in the cases of rape or incest," the court document says.

"DHSS now is attempting to shut down [the abortion provider], by unlawfully conditioning a decision on its routine license renewal application on completion of a supposed 'investigation' of a patient complaint."

The details of the patient complaint have not been disclosed to Planned Parenthood, the filing says, and DHSS is "refusing to proceed with its investigation in a reasonable manner," while "Planned Parenthood has fully cooperated with every investigative request within its power."

The governor offered a different perspective while addressing the media Wednesday afternoon.

Parson claimed that the health department discovered during an annual inspection of the facility in March "numerous violations of state laws and regulations."

He also said that an investigation into incidents that had raised concerns prompted the health department to seek interviews with the seven physicians who work at the Planned Parenthood facility. As of Wednesday, only two had complied, he said.

He would not address questions about the nature of the violations, saying only, "They are well aware of the deficiencies" and that details could not be provided "because it is still an ongoing investigation."

The fact that the St. Louis clinic is the last abortion provider in the state should be irrelevant, Parson said, because "This is about a standard of care for women in the state of Missouri."

"They should have every right under the law to have their license renewed," he said. "But they should not receive any exemptions simply because they're one clinic."

In a statement released Wednesday Planned Parenthood's president Dr. Leana Wen said Parson's comments were "not based on medicine, facts, or reality"

Wen maintained the clinic had cooperated with the state even as it "enacted arbitrary regulation upon regulation that have no basis in medicine... Our health center has once again complied with all of them"

When Parson signed House Bill 126 last week, he declared, "By signing this bill today, 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."

Missouri is one of six states to have just one remaining abortion clinic, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization dedicated to reproductive health and rights And it is the latest in a series of states to enact strict anti-abortion bills. Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi are among the states to have also joined that chorus, though the Mississippi law was struck down last week by a federal judge.

A legal battle over Missouri's eight-week ban is anticipated. But first there's this fight to still allow abortion services as of May 31.

"Every year the licensing process has become more and more challenging as the state has effectively weaponized the regulatory system within the state to regulate abortion out of existence," said Dr. David Eisenberg, medical director of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. .

"The most regulated thing in this state, in this country, is a woman's uterus," he said. If the regulations were "about promoting and protecting the well being of Missourians, we would be talking about expanding access to Medicaid [and] expanding access to basic reproductive health services like the family planning services we provide at Planned Parenthood -- including abortion care."

CNN's Alexandra Field and Julia Jones contributed to this report.

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