ST. LOUIS -- A St. Louis judge on Tuesday weighed whether physicians from Missouri's only abortion clinic can be forced to testify amid a legal fight over the facility's license.
The state issued subpoenas to staffers and former medical residents who worked at Planned Parenthood's St. Louis facility, according to court documents filed by Planned Parenthood.
At issue is a lawsuit pre-emptively filed by Planned Parenthood last week in an attempt to ensure continued abortion services. St. Louis Circuit Judge Michael Stelzer intervened just hours before the clinic's license was set to expire Friday.
The state health department had refused to renew Planned Parenthood's license over concerns with "failed abortions," compromised patient safety and legal violations at the clinic.
Agency officials also wanted to interview seven physicians at the clinic. Planned Parenthood said two staff doctors agreed to interviews with health officials, but others who worked at the clinic are no longer there and declined to speak with investigators.
Attorneys for the state wrote in their response to Planned Parenthood's lawsuit that "grave questions remain unaddressed because the physicians who provided the relevant care have refused to participate in interviews."
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."
Stelzer on Tuesday 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 "grave concerns" about the quality of care at the clinic.
Stelzer was expected to rule on the request to throw out the subpoenas sometime Tuesday.
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.