A judge in St Louis, Missouri, on Monday, issued another order to keep the state’s only abortion clinic operating while a fight over the facility’s licence plays out in court.
Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer granted Planned Parenthood’s request for a preliminary injunction, which extends his earlier order to temporarily block the state from allowing the St Louis facility’s licence to lapse. The courtroom win for abortion-rights advocates comes after a string of setbacks in legislatures around the US.
The state health department in May declined to renew the clinic’s licence to perform abortion procedures, citing concerns about patient safety, “failed surgical abortions” and legal violations.
Stelzer’s ruling on Monday ordered the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to decide on Planned Parenthood’s application to renew its licence by June 21.
Dr Leana Wen, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called the ruling “a clear victory for our patients – and for people across Missouri”, but said the threat against legal abortion remains.
“We’ve seen just how closely anti-health politicians came to ending abortion care for an entire state,” Wen said in a statement. “We are in a state of emergency for women’s health in America.”
Phone and email messages seeking comment from Republican Governor Mike Parson’s office and the health department were not immediately returned to The Associated Press.
Stelzer’s ruling said he was not determining whether the licence should be approved or denied. But the judge noted that one issue in dispute is whether the health department can simply allow the abortion clinic’s licence to lapse without taking any action.
“The court does not believe that an ‘official action’ can include non-action,” Stelzer wrote.
The state issued subpoenas to staff doctors and former medical residents who worked at Planned Parenthood’s St Louis facility, seeking their testimony about what an assistant attorney general called “grave concerns” about patient safety. Clinic leaders said the move is part of an effort by an anti-abortion rights administration to eliminate the procedure in Missouri.
According to Planned Parenthood, no state has been without a functioning abortion clinic since 1974, the year after the US Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade ruling that legalised abortion nationwide.
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 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 the state’s health department. Illinois does not track the home states of women seeking abortions.
Wave of abortion bans
The fight over the clinic’s license comes as politicians in many conservative states, including Missouri, are passing new restrictions that take aim at Roe v Wade.
Parson signed legislation on May 24 to ban abortions at or beyond eight weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest.
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. Alabama has gone even further, outlawing nearly all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. None of those bans has taken effect, and all are expected to face legal challenges.
The Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy organisation, reported at the end of May that 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.
Al Jazeera and news agencies