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Missouri’s health director blames abortion impasse on lack of communication; state tracked some patients’ menstrual cycles

Missouri’s health director blames abortion impasse on lack of communication; state tracked some patients’ menstrual cycles

by Kurt Erickson | St. Louis Post-Dispatch  |  Published on October 31, 2019

ST. LOUIS — At the same time Gov. Mike Parson’s administration is attempting to shut down Missouri’s lone abortion clinic, a top aide to the Republican chief executive said the “pro-life” governor believes abortion should be a legal option for women.

And, the director of the agency leading the state’s fight with Planned Parenthood suggested a truce could be made with the abortion provider, allowing their facility in St. Louis to remain open.

The mixed messages from the Parson administration surfaced on the second day of a weeklong hearing over the state’s decision to strip Planned Parenthood of its ability to operate its Forest Park Avenue clinic.

Among key points in Tuesday’s testimony was the revelation that Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Public Health, tracked the menstrual periods of Planned Parenthood patients as part of an investigation into problems at the abortion provider.

With the help of a spreadsheet, investigators determined that four patients had to return to Planned Parenthood for so-called “failed” abortions, leading to a decision to try to strip the clinic’s license.

Yamelsie Rodriguez, president and CEO of Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood, called Williams’ tracking method “deeply disturbing.”

“Missouri politicians have gone too far. This is government overreach at its worst. This is outrageous and disgusting. Planned Parenthood will always do what’s best for patients and that will guide any decisions we make about how we continue fighting for abortion access,” Rodriguez said.

Planned Parenthood sued the state in June when it refused to renew the clinic’s license after a March inspection.

The facility remains open during the impasse.

In an Oct. 22 deposition taken as part of the legal battle, Steele Shippy, Parson’s former spokesman and current campaign manager, initially sidestepped questions from Planned Parenthood attorney Chuck Hatfield about Parson’s beliefs on the issue of abortion.

“I think that he has articulated his positions in public, and I would refer you to, you know, his comments made in public about whether he’s pro-life,” Shippy said.

“You told us you know what it is, his position. Tell us what it is,” Hatfield says.

“He essentially believes that all life has value and is worth protecting,” Shippy said.

Eventually, Shippy said Parson believes “abortion should be legal to those who are following the law.”

The deposition, obtained by the Post-Dispatch through a Sunshine Law request, also focuses on a conference call Shippy held with state lawmakers and abortion opponents that was aimed at garnering support to close the clinic.

Hatfield asked, “Was it your main goal to shut down Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services?”

“As a member of the pro-life community, I, yeah. I believe that shutting down Planned Parenthood is, you know, a good thing to protect the health and safety of women,” Shippy said.

In testimony Tuesday, Williams said talks between Planned Parenthood and the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services could lead to the facility getting its license restored. He blamed the current impasse on a lack of communication.

“Our role is really to focus on patient safety,” said Williams, who has overseen the state health department since 2017.

He again said he is not attempting to ban abortion.

“Abortion, if carefully regulated … is safe,” Williams said.

The two sides are arguing the case in a state office building in downtown St. Louis before the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission, which decides regulatory disputes. Commissioner Sreenivasa Dandamudi is not expected to issue a ruling until February at the earliest.

On Tuesday, the lead state investigator acknowledged he did not have the type of medical training needed to make judgments on clinical issues at the facility.

“I do not” have the acumen to make clinical judgments, said William Koebel. “I’m a regulator.”

Koebel said judgments on clinical matters related to the licensing dispute were made by Williams.

But, in a separate, earlier deposition, Williams downplayed his own role in crafting the inspection reports used in the closure push.

“I think that may be too bold of a statement,” Williams said of Koebel’s claim that it was Williams who made decisions related to medical issues at the facility.

Planned Parenthood contends the state “cherry-picked” problematic cases in order to bolster its argument that the clinic should be shuttered. Of an estimated 3,000 abortions performed last year, the state found issues with four.

Under cross examination, Williams testified that Planned Parenthood’s abortion success rate is in line with the national average.

The state closed its side of the case Tuesday afternoon. Planned Parenthood’s chief medical officer, Dr. Colleen McNicholas, is scheduled to testify on behalf of the organization on Wednesday.

The dispute has become a flashpoint in an attempt by Parson and the Republican-led Legislature to limit abortion in the state. In May, the governor signed legislation that would ban abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy, except in medical emergencies.

A federal judge in August temporarily blocked the law from taking effect.

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood opened a new facility across the Mississippi River in Illinois.

Despite concerns about potential protests, fewer than a dozen observers attended Tuesday’s hearing.

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