JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A judge ruled Wednesday that a Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic can keep its abortion license at least until late December, a move that doesn't allow the facility to immediately resume terminating pregnancies but could smooth its path to restoring the service.
During a teleconference hearing, U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey said she'll block the state health department from revoking the Columbia clinic's license while she considers the arguments of a lawsuit Planned Parenthood filed Monday. It accuses the Department of Health and Senior Services of unfairly trying to revoke the license without giving the clinic enough time to come into compliance with state laws requiring a doctor to have local hospital privileges.
Even should the clinic ultimately win that court battle, it would still have to find a physician who meets those requirements in order to perform abortions. Last month the clinic halted its non-surgical abortions, which are induced with a pill, because its physician Colleen McNicholas lost privileges with University of Missouri's hospital. That left only one clinic in the state that still administers abortions.
State Solicitor General James Layton argued Wednesday that there's no harm in allowing the state to immediately revoke the license because no abortions are being performed there anyway, a fact that Laughrey instead cited in her ruling in Planned Parenthood's favor.
"Neither patient nor public welfare is at risk by plaintiff maintaining its license," Laughrey said.
Planned Parenthood attorney Melissa Cohen said there would be high costs if the clinic had to reapply for a license, even though the judge's ruling doesn't allow abortions to resume right now.
Laughrey in her decision cited evidence that Planned Parenthood could win in court, saying that the state typically gives other similarly licensed centers the opportunity to come up with a plan of action to address concerns. The decision to revoke the Planned Parenthood license "may be the result of animus toward the center and the work it performs there," the judge said.
Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri President and CEO Laura McQuade said the organization celebrated the ruling, adding that she's confident the next hearing will be in Planned Parenthood's favor.
Sam Lee, of Campaign Life Missouri, said he's glad no abortions will be performed at the center in the near future but is disappointed that the clinic still has a license. He said that makes it easier for the center to try to start providing abortions again if it finds a doctor to comply with state law.
The decision Wednesday also drew criticism from the state Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, who in a letter to Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster questioned the office's handling of the case. He called for a special assistant attorney to take over based on what he called the "apparent reluctance" of Koster's office to defend the law.
A spokeswoman for Koster said the office is reviewing the letter.
The move to revoke the license came amid backlash over undercover videos released by anti-abortion activists of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the transfer of fetal tissue. Republican lawmakers in response launched investigations of abortion in the state, including practices at the Columbia clinic and its relationship with nearby University of Missouri.
In that climate, a panel of MU Health Care staff voted in September to discontinue the clinical privileges granted to McNicholas, effectively stripping the clinic's ability to provide abortions.
Now the only clinic in Missouri still performing abortions is a Planned Parenthood office in St. Louis.
The next hearing is scheduled for Dec. 29.