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Planned Parenthood fights report that Missouri has become first abortion-free state, but numbers dwindling

Planned Parenthood fights report that Missouri has become first abortion-free state, but numbers dwindling

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State loses bid to shut down Planned Parenthood facility in St. Louis

A banner hangs on the side of the Planned Parenthood of St. Louis building after a state judge ruled in May 2020 against an attempt by Gov. Mike Parson's administration to shut down the lone abortion clinic in Missouri. (Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com)

ST. LOUIS — The only abortion provider in Missouri is dismissing as false an anti-abortion Christian organization’s report that the state has become the first to no longer provide abortions. But for the entire month of December, numbers show no abortions took place in Missouri.

Officials with Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, which operates the only abortion clinic in Missouri, say the clinic located in St. Louis still offers the surgical procedure and that anti-abortion groups are trying to cause confusion.

“I believe that they know it is intentionally false, but their purpose in doing so is to sow some doubt amongst the community, amongst folks who might need to access the care, in hopes that they might think that they don’t have an option and force them to continue the pregnancy,” said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer for the regional Planned Parenthood.

The Jan. 5 report by Operation Rescue states that it “has confirmed” that abortion appointments have not been available at Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis location “for months,” and that patients instead are being referred to its Fairview Heights facility in the Metro East.

“While the RHS Planned Parenthood remains open and licensed for abortions, we confirmed that none are being done there. That means this facility is currently acting only as an abortion referral center. There is no operational abortion facility in the State of Missouri, making it the first Abortion-Free State at this time,” the organization’s president Troy Newman stated in the report.

Newman did not return a call Tuesday from the Post-Dispatch seeking more information on how Operation Rescue reached its conclusion.

In a request for data from the Post-Dispatch, Planned Parenthood officials provided numbers showing the St. Louis facility provided seven abortions in November and none in December, compared with nine and five for those months the previous year.

A report from the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services shows only 39 surgical abortions took place in Missouri from Jan. 1 through Nov. 15, 2020. In 2019, the total number was 1,362.

McNicholas acknowledges that the number of abortions at the St. Louis facility has dropped dramatically since the October 2019 opening of the Fairview Heights clinic, where patients can avoid Missouri’s 72-hour mandatory waiting period, which requires two appointments three days apart for those wanting an abortion.

The pandemic has further increased patients’ desire to limit the number of appointments and need to travel, she said.

More patients are also seeking medication abortions, which the St. Louis facility has not provided in more than two years in protest over Missouri’s requirement that all patients wanting a medication abortion undergo a pelvic exam. The mandatory pelvic exam is at odds with guidelines set by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“For some people, the additional 18 miles from our St. Louis facility to the Illinois facility is a manageable distance, especially when you reflect on the number of barriers that we can eliminate in accessing care in Illinois versus in Missouri,” McNicholas said. “However, it’s not an option for everybody.”

When booking an appointment online for an abortion at Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic, the website asks for patients to call the facility: “Missouri law requires multiple in-person visits for abortion care. You can schedule an abortion visit online at our IL facility, which in most cases can be accomplished in one visit. If you prefer to seek abortion at our St. Louis, MO location, please call (314) 531-7526.”

Several conservative media sites have reported Operation Rescue’s determination that Missouri no longer provides abortions without seeking comment from Planned Parenthood.

In response to one news report that included a response from Planned Parenthood, Operation Rescue called them “fake news” on Twitter.

“Should have checked with us before believing Planned Parenthood propaganda! We stand by our information. PP is lying,” Operation Rescue tweeted in response to a story by The Daily Citizen, a news outlet for the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.

It is not the first time that Operation Rescue has insisted the St. Louis facility is not providing abortions. In March, the organization posted a story on its website stating that someone pretending to be a patient called the facility and was not allowed to book an appointment there.

At the time, few surgical abortions were being provided in St. Louis because the facility was fighting the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services’ refusal to renew its license. A state administrative commission later ruled the health department wrongfully denied the renewal.

Currently, Planned Parenthood is fighting a law that Missouri passed in May 2019 to ban abortion after eight weeks gestation. A district court ruling that prevents the law from being enforced is currently before the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals.

McNicholas said Planned Parenthood has long been the subject of efforts to prevent abortions, but she said the efforts feel “particularly egregious” in the midst of a pandemic.

“These tactics aren’t new, and we do our best to prepare for them,” McNicholas said. “But the reality is we have to focus our time, our energy and our resources on making sure that the people of Missouri have access to the health care they need, and we are going to continue to do that.”

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