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St. Louis Planned Parenthood to defy rule as central Missouri still reels over abortion access  1 Month ago

Source:   USA Today  

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Planned Parenthood of St. Louis told USA TODAY on Thursday that it will no longer comply with a state requirement that physicians perform two pelvic exams on patients getting surgical abortions. 

Colleen McNicholas, an OB-GYN for Planned Parenthood St. Louis, called it "deeply traumatizing and inhumane" for patients.

"We believe continuing to force an additional invasive and uncomfortable vaginal exam on patients at least three days before her abortion procedure, when it is not medically indicated, and when she will have the identical exam on the day of the abortion procedure, is not patient-centered; it is disrespectful and dehumanizing," McNicholas said. "This is contrary to our mission."

Planned Parenthood and state attorneys are set to appear in court Friday for a status conference on a license renewal. If Planned Parenthood loses its court challenge, Missouri would become the first state without an abortion provider.

In a state where abortion service has been threatened for years, Columbia – a town of 100,000 located 120 miles away from St. Louis – has fought one of the toughest battles. 

In the heart of rural Missouri, the home of the University of Missouri, Columbia College and Stephens College is more liberal than other parts of the state.

So it was a blow to Columbia's Planned Parenthood clinic when a state law took effect in the fall requiring abortion providers to have local hospital admitting privileges, effectively halting the ability for women to get abortions in the city.

Then in February, someone set the facility on fire overnight, forcing it to close for a week as the building was repaired. 

The two events devastated activists in the community who have fought to protect a woman's right to get an abortion against restrictive state laws. 

Abortion rights advocates said the arson in Columbia and state laws that target clinics are part of a larger, deliberate effort to stop abortion that is expanding across the nation.

“It’s been intentional to chip away at access and close clinic by clinic," said Democratic state Rep. Martha Stevens, who represents parts of western and central Columbia. "Going from two to one provider is detrimental, especially for women in rural areas who have to travel.”

Stevens said the fire in February was shocking for many in the community and put the clinic staff on high alert. 

The Columbia clinic, a black-and-white one-story building, has been a meeting place for anti-abortion demonstrators who often park outside with signs. 

Police arrested Wesley Brian Kaster in March and charged him in the arson. Kaster was indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of malicious damage to federal property using explosive materials and one count of malicious use of explosive materials.

His trial is set for September.

Authorities said their investigation revealed that Kaster's wife posted an image on Facebook that showed a handgun and the words, “Guns Don’t Kill People, Planned Parenthood Kills People.”

Kristin Metcalf-Wilson, a Columbia-based senior lead clinician for Planned Parenthood, said the clinic is an asset to the community. 

"This is one of the most hostile times in our environment," she said. "We are aware, now more than ever, that there is a sense that we are all under some kind of attack whether it's politically or physically." 

The abortion battle has angered some residents in Columbia, who voiced their concerns to lawmakers and organized rallies downtown. 

Mallory Donohue, 29, a mother of two, said she gets birth control shots from the Columbia clinic.

Donohue said ending abortion services in Columbia – a health care hub for many surrounding rural communities – was a major loss to central Missouri.

The Columbia clinic performed more than 100 abortions from October 2017 to October 2018, said Emily Miller, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Great Plains. Most of those patients were from mid-Missouri communities, Miller said. 

If the St. Louis clinic loses abortion service, women will have even fewer options, Donohue said. 

“People just aren’t going to be able to make their own decisions," Donohue said, adding that there will be more unwanted babies and struggling mothers. “The decision is being made for them due to lack of access.”

Columbia is home to thousands of college-age women. The University of Missouri has a student population of about 29,000. 

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports reproductive rights, women ages 20-24 accounted for the largest number of abortions in 2014 at 34%. They also had the highest abortion rate at 28 per 1,000 women. 

Terilyn Harris, a University of Missouri senior, said students struggle with limited options for abortion. 

"People don’t have cars in college, they don’t have transportation to get to clinics," Harris said. "How can people travel two hours and expect someone (a loved one) to be there with them? It’s very inconvenient." 

Missouri is among six states with a single abortion provider. The other states are Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, North Dakota and South Dakota, according to the Guttmacher Institute. 

Missouri has lost four abortion providers since 2008 because of restrictive state laws, according to Planned Parenthood.  

More recently, the Planned Parenthood clinic in Kansas City stopped abortion care in August when the state failed to renew its license before it expired. 

Miller said Planned Parenthood believes the state has been intentionally prolonging license renewals at clinics in an effort to end abortion.

In Columbia, hospitals refused to grant the clinic admitting privileges it needed under law. 

"I think the idea is that it would somehow facilitate better care or response in the event of a complication," Miller said. "But I think the whole idea of a need for admitting privileges is not rooted in the reality because abortion is extremely safe, and complications are tremendously rare."

Last month, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, signed a bill that outlaws abortion after the eighth week of pregnancy without exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Several other states have passed abortion bans with differing limits. 

Parson's office did not respond to a request for comment. 

State officials in Missouri did not renew the license for Planned Parenthood St. Louis before it expired in May.

Parson said in a statement last month that state regulators had "serious health and safety concerns" about the St. Louis clinic. 

"We are committed to and take seriously our duty to ensure that all health facilities in Missouri follow the law, abide by regulations and protect the safety of patients," Parson said. 

Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer issued a preliminary injunction last week to keep the abortion clinic operating until he makes a final ruling on a court challenge to renew its license.

 Stelzer ordered the state to issue a decision on the license for Planned Parenthood St. Louis by Friday. Regardless of its decision, directors for Planned Parenthood said, the preliminary injunction remains in effect. 

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