Subscribe for 99¢

ST. LOUIS — Missouri's only abortion clinic's fight to keep its doors open rests with one man: Michael Stelzer.

On Thursday, the St. Louis judge heard arguments from lawyers for Planned Parenthood and the state of Missouri over the clinic's future. The clinic is asking for a temporary order that would prevent its license from expiring at midnight Friday.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer

St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer

Stelzer took the case under advisement and has yet to make a ruling. His decision could determine whether Missouri becomes the nation's first state without at least one functioning abortion clinic.

The legal fight in St. Louis comes within a week of the Missouri governor signing one of the country's most restrictive abortion laws.

Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region sued the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on Tuesday, alleging the state agency was illegally refusing to renew the St. Louis abortion clinic's yearly license until the department could complete an investigation into an unspecified patient complaint.

At issue is the state's demand to interview seven physicians, all who had worked at the clinic, as part of an investigation the clinic says began last month. Five of the doctors, who aren't employed by Planned Parenthood but come from local university medical programs to treat patients at the Central West End clinic, have refused to be interviewed as part of the state's investigation.

The clinic's lawyer, Jamie Boyer, argued Thursday that it has no power to compel those doctors to speak to the department about an unspecified investigation, which began in April after a routine inspection a month earlier. The clinic said the March 11-13 inspection included interviews with doctors and staff and cited some "non-remarkable" deficiencies that the clinic says it corrected.

The inspection cited Planned Parenthood for the timing of a pelvic exam and the clinic's failure to ensure that the same doctor who provided an "informed consent visit" three days before the abortion was the one performing it. The clinic says it submitted a correction plan as required.

"There is no justification for shutting our doors now," Boyer told the judge. "The department is conditioning our ability to renew our license on these interviews. We couldn't comply even if we wanted to. They're not our employees."

John Sauer, a lawyer for DHSS argued Thursday that the doctors' refusal to be interviewed as part of the investigation is "unprecedented" and that the clinic has the burden of forcing the physicians to cooperate. He said it is common to seek interviews with people who work in health-care facilities as part of the license renewal process.

"We've raised serious concerns that need to be addressed," Sauer said of the department's investigation.

The impasse between the the state and Planned Parenthood, Sauer said, was "created by the refusal of the doctors to cooperate and the failure of the regulated entity to induce them to cooperate." He also said Planned Parenthood shouldn't have sued — its complaints should have been heard by a license renewal commission instead of state courts.

On Friday, Gov. Mike Parson signed a new anti-abortion law prohibiting most abortions eight weeks into a pregnancy. The eight-week abortion ban takes effect Aug. 28.

The Republican governor said during a press conference Wednesday that in addition to not enabling interviews, Planned Parenthood had not corrected several "deficiencies" at the St. Louis clinic. He declining to elaborate.

After Thursday's hearing on the courthouse steps, M’Evie Mead, the director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Missouri, said the organization has complied with state's "goalpost-moving behavior."

"Missouri politicians and Missouri government are weaponizing the licensing and regulatory process to end safe and legal abortions in Missouri," Mead said.

Stelzer's decision is expected before midnight Friday. He'll weigh whether DHSS's interpretation of Missouri rules for renewing licenses conflicts with state law and if the state's failure to renew Planned Parenthood's license interferes with a woman's constitutional right to an abortion.

In downtown St. Louis on Thursday, protesters against Missouri's new abortion law marched from the Gateway Arch west on Market Street, leading chants and calling for Parson's removal from office. Some crowded the lobby of the Wainwright Building, which holds state offices, vowing to stay until Planned Parenthood's license is renewed. Police arrested several protesters about 2:30 p.m.

— Robert Patrick of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Joel Currier is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter here: @joelcurrier.