US: Missouri's only abortion clinic can stay open - for now

Judge issues temporary order ensuring the facility can stay open until another hearing is held next week.

    Abortion-rights supporters march in St Louis as a judge decides on an abortion clinic''s fate [Jeff Roberson/AP Photo]
    Abortion-rights supporters march in St Louis as a judge decides on an abortion clinic''s fate [Jeff Roberson/AP Photo]

    A judge issued an order Friday ensuring Missouri's only abortion clinic can continue providing abortions, acting just hours before the St Louis Planned Parenthood facility's licence was expected to expire.

    The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services had said it would not renew the clinic's licence, citing concerns with "failed abortions", compromised patient safety and legal violations at the clinic. Agency officials also insisted upon interviewing additional physicians at the clinic as part of an investigation.

    With the licence set to expire at midnight Friday, Planned Parenthood pre-emptively sued this week and argued that the state was "weaponising" the licensing process. Planned Parenthood had said that absent court intervention, Missouri would become the first state without an abortion clinic since the United States Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that legalised the procedure nationwide.

    St Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer issued a temporary restraining order preventing Missouri from taking away the clinic's licence. He said Planned Parenthood "has demonstrated that immediate and irreparable injury will result" if its abortion licence were allowed to expire. 

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    The clinic's licence "shall not expire and shall remain in effect" until a ruling is issued on Planned Parenthood's request for a permanent injunction, according to Stelzer's ruling. A hearing is set for Tuesday morning.

    'Fight far from over'

    "Today is a victory for women across Missouri, but this fight is far from over," Planned Parenthood Federation of America CEO Dr Leana Wen said in a statement. "We have seen just how vulnerable access to abortion care is here - and in the rest of the country."

    The number of abortions performed in Missouri has declined every year for the past decade, reaching a low of 2,910 last year. Of those, an estimated 1,210 occurred at eight weeks or less of pregnancy, according to preliminary statistics from the state's health department.

    Missouri women also seek abortions in other states. In Kansas, about 3,300 of the 7,000 abortions performed in 2018 were for Missouri residents, according to health officials. Illinois does not track the home states of women seeking abortions.

    Abortion
    The exterior of a Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services Center in St Louis, Missouri [Michael Thomas/Getty Images/AFP] 

    The nearest clinic performing abortions is just across the Mississippi River in Granite City, Illinois, less than 16km from the Planned Parenthood facility in St Louis.

    The fight over the clinic's licence comes as politicians in conservative states across the nation are passing new restrictions that take aim at Roe v Wade.

    Abortion rights opponents, emboldened by new conservative justices on the Supreme Court, are hoping federal courts will uphold laws that prohibit abortions before a fetus is viable outside the womb, the dividing line the high court established in Roe v Wade. 

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    Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have enacted bills barring abortion once there's a detectable fetal heartbeat, as early as the sixth week of pregnancy. Missouri politicians recently approved an eight-week ban on abortion. Alabama's gone even further, outlawing virtually all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. None of the bans has taken effect, and all are expected to face legal challenges.

    According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy organisation, 27 abortion bans have been enacted across 12 states so far in 2019.

    Additionally, the organisation reported that between January 1 and May 31, 479 abortion restrictions were enacted in 33 states, accounting for more than a third of the 1,271 abortion restrictions enacted since the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that legalised abortion.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies