For three years, Missouri had just one abortion clinic operating in the state, a Planned Parenthood office located in St. Louis. Another affiliate, located right in the middle of the state in the city of Columbia, shuttered for good in 2012 after being open and closed intermittently for years based on doctor availability.
When Columbia announced this summer that it would once more open its doors—first offering medication abortions initially and then, eventually, moving on to non-medication procedures as well—abortion-rights supporters couldn’t be happier. Since the clinic closed, the state passed a mandatory 72-hour in-person waiting period, a restriction that would force all patients wanting an abortion to make two trips into a clinic in order to obtain care. Travel was often doubled, and the resources and doctor’s scheduling time needed per patient had vastly increased as well. A new clinic meant that for those who lived in the nearly 250-mile expanse between St. Louis on the east border of Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas, on the western state line would have a more accessible option—at least for the first nine weeks of pregnancy.
But the timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate. The clinic was licensed to reopen at the same time that the Center for Medical Progress dropped its first sting video allegedly exposing Planned Parenthood Federation of America for illegal reimbursements from its limited tissue donation program. In the months that have followed, multiple state-based investigations failed to show any law breaking. Although abortion opponents across the country held rallies, opened congressional hearings and implemented a full-scale public relations battle against the reproductive health care network, general approval of PPFA continues to be unaffected. Regardless, Planned Parenthood announced last week it would discontinue accepting any reimbursement for tissue donation, a move obviously meant to bring the political attack to an end.
Unfortunately, it may be too late to undo the damage. In Missouri, the GOP-dominated legislature reacted immediately to the first video release, creating the “Sanctity of Human Life Committee” to investigate Planned Parenthood locally. Primarily consisting of Republicans seeking statewide office in 2016, the committee was ostensibly checking to see if the state Planned Parenthood was participating in fetal tissue donation by “conducting ‘an in-depth analysis’ of Planned Parenthood and the ‘methods by which they dispose human remains and aborted fetuses.’” The answer? No, there were no issues with the handling or disposing of fetal remains.
The committee changed directions partly through the investigation, though, and used the opportunity to go after the newly reopened Columbia clinic. Committee Chair Sen. Kurt Schaefer attacked the clinic’s “refer and follow” agreement with University of Missouri Health Care, a minor deviation from the state’s local admitting privileges agreement rule that is enforced for the St. Louis Planned Parenthood. Because the Columbia clinic was only providing medication abortions, it was told by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services that a refer-and-follow agreement was adequate as the Columbia clinic wasn’t a surgical center. Schaeffer made it immediately clear that his pressure would be on the university, considering it the weak spot in this arrangement. “I want the university out of the abortion business," he stated in late August.
One month later, he received his wish. On September 25, the university announced it would be eliminating “refer and follow” privileges as of December, calling them an outdated type of agreement that only two doctors were using. That one of those doctors happened to be the Columbia clinic abortion doctor, and that the move would likely stop abortions from being offered outside of St. Louis, allegedly was not a factor, although the school also severed ties with other Planned Parenthood clinics that med students were using in order to obtain clinical hours, according to St. Louis Today.
Without court intervention, Planned Parenthood in Columbia could be losing abortion services less than six months after it finally restarted its activities. If that happens, it would be an unhappy return to what has become status quo for the state. Alarmingly, though, abortion opponents may just be getting started.
Also inspired by the Planned Parenthood attacks, and perhaps emboldened by a potential victory in Columbia, anti-abortion activists and legislators are now working on another abortion-adjacent partnership as a potential weak spot to close a clinic—this time going for the St. Louis Planned Parenthood itself. In this case, opponents are pressuring the only pathology to stop working with the clinic, knowing that without that relationship, the clinic would be forced to stop offering terminations.
“Whether they fully appreciate it or not, your lab workers are part of the assembly line of the abortion industry,” Missouri Catholic Conference executive director Mike Hoey wrote on October 6 in the letter to Dr. James Miller, registered agent of Pathology Services Inc., according to the St. Louis Review. “If you look back several steps and reflect upon what is going on, I am confident you will no longer want to be a part of this tragic process.” Hoey added, “As a private business you have no legal obligation to cater to the needs of Planned Parenthood. I urge you in this open letter to move immediately to end your association with the abortion industry.”
A week later, the lab was called in to the capitol to testify in front of the Sanctify of Human Life Committee, in this case to respond to accusations that the lab was breaking the law by not sending reports to the state after they analyzed the tissue that arrived on site after an abortion. Pathology Services Inc. responded that they assumed the clinic itself had sent the mandated reports, and corrected the issue.
The message from the Missouri legislature this summer is clear—if you are affiliated with an abortion provider you are complicit in allowing the clinic to operate, and will be subject to the same intense scrutiny and extra regulations as the abortion clinics themselves. New proposals that the GOP-led legislature said they are considering that would involve the pathology lab include random, surprise inspections and new requirements for tracking each piece of fetal tissue entering the building, rules that are meant to increase expense and put the business in fear of being accused of breaking laws. Since Pathology Services Inc. serves many clients besides Planned Parenthood, the obvious mission is to make them conclude working with the abortion clinic is too risky to continue. If the legislature is successful, that could be the action that would close the St. Louis clinic and make the state abortion-free.
“The GOP witch hunt against Planned Parenthood in Missouri has reached the ultimate level of absurdity,” Rep. Stacey Newman (D-St. Louis) told DAME Magazine. “I urge others to pay attention because the GOP anti-women extremists are everywhere, not just in Missouri. This is political blackmail at it’s worst and believe me, women and those who love them are paying attention.”