A US judge has issued an order to keep Missouri’s only abortion clinic operating despite the objections of state health officials.
The ruling delivered abortion rights advocates with a courtroom victory after a string of setbacks in state legislatures around the US.
St Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer said Planned Parenthood’s St Louis clinic can continue providing abortions despite the Missouri health department’s refusal to renew its licence due to a variety of patient safety issues.
He said the temporary restraining order was necessary “to preserve the status quo and prevent irreparable injury” to Planned Parenthood.
With the abortion license set to expire at midnight on Friday, Planned Parenthood pre-emptively sued this week and argued that the state was “weaponising” the licensing process.
Planned Parenthood said that without court intervention, Missouri would become the first state without an abortion clinic since the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that legalised the procedure nationwide.
The clinic’s licence “shall not expire and shall remain in effect” until a ruling is issued on Planned Parenthood’s request for a permanent injunction, Mr Stelzer’s ruling says. A hearing is set for Tuesday morning.
In refusing to renew the licence, Missouri’s health department cited “failed surgical abortions in which women remained pregnant” and legal violations, while insisting that it first needed to interview several clinic physicians who had been reluctant to talk.
Planned Parenthood said two staff doctors agreed to interviews but that others who are contractors or no longer work at the clinic would not talk.
State health department director Randall Williams had said earlier on Friday that a court order allowing the abortion clinic to remain open would not resolve the issue.
“The issues that are of concern to us are still there,” Mr Williams said.
The fight over the clinic’s licence comes as lawmakers in conservative states across the nation are passing new restrictions that take aim at Roe v Wade.
Abortion opponents, emboldened by new conservative justices on the Supreme Court, are hoping federal courts will uphold laws that prohibit abortions before a foetus is viable outside the womb, the dividing line the high court set in Roe.
Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have enacted bills barring abortion once there is a detectable foetal heartbeat, as early as the sixth week of pregnancy.
Missouri lawmakers recently approved an eight-week ban on abortion, with exceptions only for medical emergencies. Alabama has gone even further, outlawing virtually all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. None of the bans has taken effect, and all are expected to face legal challenges.
“Today is a victory for women across Missouri, but this fight is far from over,” Planned Parenthood Federation of America CEO Dr Leana Wen said in a statement. “We have seen just how vulnerable access to abortion care is here — and in the rest of the country.”
Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Sarah Felts said the St Louis clinic continued to perform abortions on Friday, including on many patients who moved up appointments that had been scheduled for next week because of the uncertainty.
The number of abortions performed in Missouri has declined every year for the past decade, reaching a low of 2,910 last year. Of those, an estimated 1,210 occurred at eight weeks or less of pregnancy, according to preliminary statistics from the state health department.