Judge agrees to block Mo. abortion law

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A federal judge Monday agreed to temporarily block enforcement of a new Missouri law aimed at increasing regulation of abortion clinics.

U.S. District judge Ortrie Smith granted a request from Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri for a temporary injunction, saying he will hold a Sept. 10 hearing to determine whether to make the injunction permanent.

Planned Parenthood has argued that if the law goes into effect it would infringe on women's abortion rights because the organization would have to halt abortions at its Columbia and Kansas City offices -- either permanently or while expensive and "medically unnecessary" renovations are made.

Missouri already requires abortion facilities to be licensed, but because of the definition of an abortion facility -- requiring abortions to generate half its revenue or patients -- a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis has been the only facility in Missouri actually regulated as an abortion clinic.

The new law, which was to take effect today, would pull more clinics under the state's umbrella by requiring any facility that performs more than five first-trimester abortions a month, or any second- or third-trimester abortions, to meet the licensure requirements for an "ambulatory surgical center."

One Planned Parenthood estimate put the renovation costs for the Columbia clinic to comply with the surgical center requirements at about $600,000. The organization contends that because the Kansas City and Columbia facilities already exist, they should be exempt from meeting the new physical requirements.

In his order, Smith warned both sides from reading too much into his ruling, saying "the state has a legitimate interest in regulating facilities that perform surgery, even if the facility in question performs surgical abortions.

"The court also believes the state may differentiate between facilities that do not primarily perform surgery based on the types of surgery they provide," he wrote.

But he said it was confusing how the state would apply the law to the Kansas City clinic, which performs only medication-induced abortions, not surgical ones.

Defense attorneys said that the facility should be outfitted for surgery in case something goes wrong with the medication. But Smith was unconvinced.

"Of all the establishments that dispense medication [e.g. doctor[']s offices, pharmacies], why is it only those that dispense medication for the purpose of inducing an abortion that must be prepared to perform surgery?" Smith asked.

He said the law should probably apply to the Columbia clinic and noted that Planned Parenthood and the department were willing to cooperate. But he said there was still disagreement over what level of regulations the clinic would have to follow, and more discussion was needed on that point.

Smith said not approving the temporary restraining order would likely force Planned Parenthood to close the two clinics and deny women an abortion in large parts of the state. Since the clinics hadn't been regulated for years, he said a short delay would cause little harm to the state.

Peter Brownlie, executive director of the Planned Parenthood branch, said he was "very pleased" with the ruling.

"The state has contended that the law is meant to protect the safety of women," he said. "It's pretty clear that the judge is at best dubious of that plan."

Spokespeople for Department of Health and Senior Services director Jane Drummond and Attorney General Jay Nixon didn't immediately return phone calls for comment.

The case has caused political sparks between Drummond and Nixon.

While Nixon's office typically represents state agencies during court challenges, Drummond asked for help from a private law firm, saying she didn't believe the pro-choice Nixon would adequately represent her.

Nixon, a Democrat, is also expected to face Drummond's boss, Blunt, during next year's gubernatorial race.

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