Lone Missouri Abortion Clinic Can Stay Open in Dispute with State

ST. LOUIS — Missouri’s only abortion clinic was temporarily spared on Friday, after a state commission gave it more time to resolve its licensing dispute with the state health department.

The conflict, over whether the clinic has complied with health department requirements, has threatened to make Missouri the first state in about 45 years where women would not have access to abortion services. So far the clinic has hung on, finding legal relief in state court.

On Friday, that legal protection was extended again, this time by an official in the Administrative Hearing Commission, a body in the executive branch that resolves disputes involving state agencies. A hearing was set for Aug. 1.

“We are relieved to have this last-minute reprieve,” Dr. Colleen McNicholas, a doctor at the clinic, said in a statement.

Abortion has become one of the most contentious issues in states around the nation, with state legislatures like Missouri’s, dominated by Republicans, approving strict new limits in recent months and those dominated by Democrats approving new protections. The United States Supreme Court has taken a more conservative tilt, and abortion opponents say they now see an opening to reach a cherished goal: a reversal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that extended federal protection to abortion.

In all, 58 new abortion restrictions were signed into law this year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, with seven states, including Missouri, banning the procedure at early points during pregnancy when women often do not yet know they are pregnant.

Abortion rights groups have started to challenge the new limits, and so far none have actually taken effect. On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia filed a federal lawsuit to block Georgia’s six-week ban from taking effect as scheduled in January. Missouri’s law, which bans abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy, has not been challenged yet. It is scheduled to take effect Aug. 28.

The Missouri law, which has no exceptions for rape or incest, is causing some political angst among Republicans. David Humphreys, a major donor to the Republican Party and the chief executive of Tamko, a building products company in Joplin, urged Gov. Mike Parson to veto the ban, saying its lack of exceptions was “bad public policy,” according to Mary Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the Committee to Protect the Rights of Victims of Rape and Incest, which worked with Mr. Humphreys to oppose the bill. Mr. Humphreys is now helping fund a referendum petition to repeal it. The A.C.L.U. is steering a similar effort.

Still, political analysts said that they did not expect any debate within the Republican Party over the new abortion limit to make much difference at the polls next year; Missouri, once seen as a swing state, has been dominated by Republican voters in recent years.

“The statewide effect will be marginal at most,” said Terry Jones, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, noting that a few individual statehouse districts might see some effect.

Friday’s decision by the Administrative Hearing Commission to extend legal protections for the clinic capped weeks of legal wrangling between the clinic, Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, and Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services.

The dispute began this spring, after the health department found what it said was evidence of three failed abortions, including one in which the patient had to be taken to the hospital and had lost a lot of blood. It said the clinic has not complied with its orders to correct “deficiencies” it identified during an inspection, including those associated with the cases.

The clinic has not commented publicly on the individual accusations, citing patient privacy. A spokeswoman said that there were “complications in abortion care just like in any other health care procedure” and that the clinic’s complication rate was less than 1 percent, “in line with the national average.” Planned Parenthood has said that it has tried to address the health department’s concerns, but that it believes that the department is “weaponizing” the inspections process — making unreasonable requests for political purposes.

In May, the argument ended up in state court, where the clinic won a temporary restraining order, which allowed it to operate past the May 31 expiration of its license. This week, the same judge that gave the order, Michael F. Stelzer of the Missouri Circuit Court in St. Louis, moved the case to the Administrative Hearing Commission in the executive branch, saying he could go no further until the commission had ruled.

The case has been assigned to Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi, a spokeswoman for the commission said. On Friday, Mr. Dandamudi, who was appointed as a commissioner by Jay Nixon, a Democratic former governor, agreed to let the clinic keep providing abortions while he considers the case.

The clinic is open for now, but its future remains uncertain.

“The terrifying reality is that access is hanging on by a thread,” Dr. McNicholas said.


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