Missouri health officials likely violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause when they threatened to revoke the abortion license of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Columbia, Missouri, a federal judge ruled on Monday.
In barring the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) from revoking the clinic’s license, U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey found the department had treated Planned Parenthood more harshly “than other similarly situated institutions.”
“DHSS’s disparate treatment of (Planned Parenthood) cannot be justified by political pressure or public opposition” to Planned Parenthood,” Laughrey wrote in her 26-page ruling.
A spokeswoman for the Missouri Attorney General’s office, which is defending the department in Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit, said the department was reviewing the ruling.
Missouri law requires that all abortion facilities be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers and that physicians performing abortions have staff privileges at a hospital within a 15-minute drive of the facility.
After highly-edited videos surfaced in July purporting to show that Planned Parenthood clinics illegally trafficked in fetal parts, the Missouri Senate Interim Committee on Sanctity of Life conducted an investigation into the Columbia clinic’s licensing and the hospital admitting privileges of the doctor performing abortions there. The doctor held privileges at the University of Missouri Health System.
In August, the chairman of the committee, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican from Columbia and a candidate for attorney general, sent a letter to University of Missouri Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin warning him that Missouri law prohibited the use of public funds for abortions.
On Sept. 24, the university announced it would eliminate the doctor’s privileges effective Dec. 1. The next day DHSS warned the Columbia clinic that its license would be revoked if it didn’t meet the hospital privilege requirement by Dec. 1. Planned Parenthood then sued to stop the revocation.
In her ruling, Laughrey noted that DHSS had revoked only one other license, that of the Surgical Center of Creve Coeur, and had given it an opportunity to submit a plan of correction. By contrast, she said, it never gave Planned Parenthood the same chance.
She also noted that the record showed Planned Parenthood was treated differently “as a result of animus” toward it.
“Prior to sending the September 25 letter, DHSS received many communications from Missouri legislators, right to life advocacy groups, and the press regarding (Planned Parenthood’s) licensing and the procedures governing the license ...” Laughrey wrote. “While these communications underscore the extent to which PPKM is a disfavored institution in Missouri, they provide no rational justification for the disparate treatment afforded the institution in addressing its licensing deficiency.”
Missouri, Kansas and other states launched investigations of Planned Parenthood after an anti-abortion group called The Center for Medical Progress released videos over the summer showing discussions about Planned Parenthood procuring fetal tissue for researchers. None of the investigations found that Planned Parenthood had illegally handled fetal tissue.
In a statement Monday, Laura McQuade, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said, “Let this victory show political games do not pass muster. We will continue to do everything we can to place a physician in our Columbia health center and provide abortions there.”
Dan Margolies, editor of the Heartland Health Monitor team, is based at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.