ST. LOUIS -- A St. Louis judge ruled Tuesday that testimony from non-staff doctors at Missouri's only abortion clinic will not be necessary for a hearing that will determine if the clinic can remain open.
Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer agreed to throw out subpoenas for four doctors who worked briefly at the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis during their training. Stelzer's ruling also set a hearing for Wednesday to consider Planned Parenthood's request for a preliminary injunction to stop the state from forcing the clinic to close.
Stelzer, citing the limited scope of the upcoming hearing, said the doctors' testimony "will not be relevant." He said the subpoenas "would present an undue burden and hardship" on the non-staff doctors.
Messages seeking comment from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Mike Parson were not immediately returned.
The ruling is the latest in a legal fight over the facility's abortion license.
The health department last week declined to renew the clinic's license to perform abortion procedures, citing concerns about patient safety, including "failed abortions" and legal violations. Stelzer on Friday issued a temporary restraining order to allow the clinic to continue to perform abortions, at least until a decision is made on the injunction request.
The state issued subpoenas to staff doctors and former medical residents who worked at Planned Parenthood's St. Louis facility, seeking their testimony about what an assistant attorney general called "grave concerns" about patient safety. Clinic leaders said the state's move is part of an effort by an anti-abortion administration to eliminate the procedure in Missouri.
Planned Parenthood attorney Jamie Boyer said both staff doctors were interviewed by health officials, but other doctors who worked at the clinic are no longer there and declined to speak with investigators.
According to a filing by the former residents' attorneys, a state health official in an affidavit explained that the dispute is over "whether the same physician must provide informed consent and perform/induce the abortion."
Hours before the ruling, the judge held a brief hearing on the physicians' request to block the subpoenas. Attorney Russell Makepeace said his two clients were doctors who as part of their residency at a hospital worked 12 days each at the clinic over a four-year period. Neither is currently involved with the clinic.
"They really have nothing to add" to the investigation, Makepeace told the judge.
He also said the doctors are concerned that due to Missouri's "shifting interpretation" of state statutes, they could face criminal charges for any involvement in abortions.
Assistant Attorney General John Sauer said the state has a right to hear from the doctors because of concerns about the quality of care at the clinic.
About 100 anti-abortion protesters rallied outside the clinic, lauding Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and chanting "Pro-life! Pro-woman!" At times, people driving by honked to show their support. Other drivers cursed at the protesters.
"Pregnancy is not a disease cured by abortion," speaker Reagan Barklage of Students for Life of America, the group that hosted the rally, told the crowd.
The fight over the clinic's license comes as lawmakers in many conservative states are passing new restrictions that take aim at the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the procedure nationwide. Abortion opponents, emboldened by new conservative justices on the Supreme Court, hope federal courts will uphold laws that prohibit abortions before a fetus is viable outside the womb, the dividing line the high court set in Roe.
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.
Missouri women also seek abortions in other states. In Kansas, about 3,300 of the 7,000 abortions performed in 2018 were for Missouri residents, according to the state's health department. Illinois does not track the home states of women seeking abortions.
An abortion clinic is located just across the Mississippi River in Granite City, Illinois, less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the Planned Parenthood facility in St. Louis. Planned Parenthood's abortion clinic in the Kansas City area is in Overland Park, Kansas, just 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the state line. State figures show a handful of Missouri hospitals also perform abortions, but those are relatively rare.
Ballentine reported from Jefferson City, Missouri.