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Missouri legislators expect to focus on abortion, and University of Missouri, in new session

Legislative leaders and anti-abortion activists are making it clear that abortion regulations – and Planned Parenthood -- are likely to be among the top issues for many Missouri lawmakers when they return to the state Capitol in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, area allies of Planned Parenthood say they’re fighting back – beginning with a rally planned for Saturday outside its midtown St. Louis clinic.

Some on both sides blame last summer’s flap over anti-abortion videos that allege some Planned Parenthood operations in other states are illegally selling fetal tissue for research. (Planned Parenthood notes the videos were edited and denies any wrongdoing.)

Credit Kurhan | sxc.hu

Others point to the University of Missouri at Columbia’s role in the resumption – and ending – of abortions at Columbia’s Planned Parenthood clinic.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, cites both matters as among top concerns in his talks with fellow GOP senators about key concerns as the General Assembly prepares to go back into session.

“What’s going on at the University of Missouri, and those tapes, is getting a lot of traction,’’ said Richard in a telephone interview. The Senate leader added that he plans to attend the next hearing that has been scheduled by a special committee headed by state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, that is looking into both matters.

Schaefer, who is running for attorney general next year, has been overseeing such hearings for several months.

Richard also appears to be raising the stakes in the legal fight generated when the university withdrew its referral privileges to the St. Louis area physician hired by the Columbia Planned Parenthood clinic so that it could resume providing abortions. That action – sought by Schaefer and other conservative legislators – then led the state’s Department of Health and Human Services to revoke the clinic’s license allowing it to provide abortions.

A federal judge has temporarily ruled to allow the Planned Parenthood clinic to keep its state license while it looks for a new physician.

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, talks to reporters after the Senate adjourned.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Ron Richard

Richard is asking Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, whose office is representing the state in the legal dispute, to appoint a special counsel to handle the case. The chief reason: Richard questions whether Koster – who supports abortion rights -- will be aggressive enough in defending the Health Department’s action.

In a letter to Koster, Richard cited “the apparent reluctance of your office to vigorously defend the law.” Among other things, the Senate leader was referring to a 2010 settlement with Planned Parenthood of Kansas City and Mid-Missouri that he says barred suits like the one that it has filed to keep the Columbia facility open.

A spokeswoman for Koster replied Thursday, “Our office is defending the (health) department in the lawsuit and will continue to do so.” The spokeswoman confirmed later that there were no plans to hire a special counsel.

Richard said he’ll mull his options, adding, “I just assume the attorney general will do his job.”

The scrutiny directed at Koster appears linked, in part, to his office’s investigation that cleared Planned Parenthood clinics in Missouri of any improprieties when it comes to dealing with fetal remains after an abortion. The St. Louis clinic is the only facility in Missouri currently providing abortions.

Chris Koster
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Chris Koster

Some conservative lawmakers question that probe.

A Democrat, Koster is running for governor in 2016. His campaign spokesman said, "As the state's chief lawyer, General Koster is bound to defend the laws of the state of Missouri, and he will do so. However, he personally believes Republicans in the legislature are wrong to continue using women's health as a political football. General Koster is committed to ensuring women have safe and affordable access to care and the right to make their own health decisions."

Abortion issues among pre-filed bills

Richard said he expects some Republican lawmakers to make an effort to "defund'' Planned Parenthood from  Missouri's Medicaid program, although no state dollars are currently involved. The agency receives money from the federal portion of Medicaid that pays for women's health exams or screenings that Planned Parenthood can provide. Several other states have attempted to cut off Planned Parenthood from that federal money, but the courts generally have blocked such moves.

State Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, sits on Schaefer’s special committee. Onder also has pre-filed a bill aimed at imposing more restrictions on abortion providers and physicians.

Onder’s bill would require physicians who perform abortions to have surgical privileges as well as admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. The University of Missouri initially had granted referral privileges to the physician at the Columbia clinic, which Onder maintains is inadequate.

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, campaigned last year as a proponent of right to work -- even though labor unions have gained a bit of a foothold in St. Charles County.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Bob Onder

In any case, Onder – along with Schaefer and Richard -- believes that the University of Missouri should be barred from granting any privileges to abortion doctors, because it’s a taxpayer-funded institution. Onder and others indicate they plan to act during the next session to make such a ban clear.

“I think some of the things, some of the actions by the Department of Health and some of the actions by individuals at the University of Missouri, clearly violate the letter and the spirit of our previous abortion laws, our abortion statutes,” Onder said. One of the aims of his bill, he said, is to remove any ambiguity.

(State and university officials say they have been complying with state law.)

Onder, who is a physician, notes that his bill also would require annual inspections of abortion clinics. He said that his chief concerns were the safety and health of the mothers, as well as the unborn children. Onder has been a longstanding opponent of abortion.

Other pre-filed bills in the General Assembly include a proposal that would require that both parents of a girl under the age of 16 be informed before an abortion can be performed. Now, consent of one parent is required. Notification of both is not.

Area Planned Parenthood pledges to remain open

Mary Kogut, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, says the state’s current consent law is adequate. She contended that getting signed notifications from both parents would often be impossible to obtain.

“I think it would create an undue burden’’ for many teenage girls, Kogut said.

In any case, she said that the St. Louis region’s Planned Parenthood is committed to staying in operation, despite the threats and accusations that the operation and its staff have faced over “the video smear campaign.”

Among other things, the St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic has emphasized that it doesn’t participate in any sort of program involving the donation of fetal tissue for medical research . Such programs elsewhere require the approval of the women who underwent abortions.

Mary Kogut
Credit Provided by Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri
Mary Kogut

Kogut contended that the critics’ chief aim is to end “safe and legal abortions.”

“Abortion care is one of the most highly regulated procedures in Missouri,’’ Kogut said. “It’s also one of the safest.”

On Saturday, supporters of the St. Louis clinic will participate in a rally that is part of a national effort by Planned Parenthood operations around the country to mark last week’s fatal shootings at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.

“It’s a day of unity, a day to remember what happened in Colorado Springs,’’ Kogut said.

She added, ““It’s really unfortunate that to access health care, we have to worry about things like bullet-proof glass and vests and metal detectors. People shouldn’t have to do that to access health care.”

Copyright 2015 St. Louis Public Radio

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.