KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday blocked the state of Missouri from revoking the abortion license of a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Columbia, saying the state had treated the clinic more harshly than similar institutions and had moved to withdraw the license because of political pressure from some state lawmakers.
U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood of Kansas and mid-Missouri after the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said in September it would revoke the clinic's abortion license Dec. 1. Laughrey had issued a temporary restraining order, which was scheduled to expire Monday.
The judge's ruling doesn't allow the clinic to immediately resume abortions because it still needs to find a physician who meets state requirement that a doctor must have local hospital admitting privileges to perform abortions there.
Planned Parenthood of Kansas and mid-Missouri President and CEO Laura McQuade said the ruling was a "huge victory" for the organization and women seeking abortions, particularly those who do not live near St. Louis, where the only Missouri clinic currently able to provide abortions is located.
"The ruling makes clear that the judicial branch sees this for the political gamesmanship that it is," she said. "We are not talking about health and safety issues, we are talking about making safe and legal abortions a thing of the past ... That's what this always was."
The Missouri Attorney General's office is reviewing the ruling, spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said.
Sam Lee, director of Campaign Life Missouri, sharply criticized the decision.
"We think it's ridiculous that a federal judge would prevent state health officials from protecting the health and safety of Missouri women," he said. "We hope the attorney general will aggressively defend the laws of the state."
Planned Parenthood contended in its lawsuit that state officials moved to revoke the license without giving the clinic time to comply with requirements for a doctor to have local hospital privileges.
Laughrey said in her ruling that the health department had revoked only one other license at an ambulatory surgical center, which also did not have a doctor with local hospital privileges. She said the health department worked with the clinic in Creve Coeur, which had immediate health and safety issues, for at least three months before finally revoking its license.
In contrast, although health officials have acknowledged the Columbia clinic had no immediate health or safety concerns, it never asked clinic officials for an action plan and sent a letter informing the center its license would be revoked immediately after hearing that the clinic would not have a doctor with local hospital privileges.
"The evidence submitted to the court indicates that DHSS's unprecedented hasty actions were likely the result of political pressure being exerted by Missouri legislators and the Department's perception that if it did not act in accordance with the legislature's desires, its budget would be cut," Laughrey said.
After national anti-abortion activists released undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing the handling of fetal tissue, Missouri Republican lawmakers began investigating abortion in the state. During those investigations, a panel of MU Health Care staff voted in September to discontinue the clinical privileges granted to Dr. Colleen McNicholas, ending the clinic's ability to provide abortions.
McQuade said McNicholas is going through the process of having her privileges reinstated and Planned Parenthood is also looking for another physician who already meets the state requirements to work at the clinic.
The judge said Planned Parenthood is entitled to a preliminary injunction pending resolution of the case, which she said she wanted resolved by May 1, 2016.
This version of the story corrects the spelling of Judge Nanette Laughrey throughout.