WATCH: Protests as court weighs fate of Missouri's sole abortion clinic

2019-06-01 08:01
Thousands of demonstrators march in support of Planned Parenthood and pro-choice as they protest a state decision that would effectively halt abortions. (Saul Loeb, AFP)

Thousands of demonstrators march in support of Planned Parenthood and pro-choice as they protest a state decision that would effectively halt abortions. (Saul Loeb, AFP)

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A US court on Thursday weighed the fate of the last abortion clinic in Missouri, which risks becoming the first state in 45 years without access to the procedure amid a nationwide push to curtail reproductive rights.

As judges heard arguments, crowds of protesters took to the streets of Missouri's largest city St. Louis, warning of dire consequences if the state of six million loses its sole abortion provider.

"No one should decide what women do with their bodies," said Jane Wees Martin, a 70-year-old painter who was among the hundreds holding up signs reading "My vagina, My choice", and "Reproductive autonomy is a human right".

Denouncing a "war against women" that might push her to move home, 19-year-old health management student Neha Hanumanthiah, 19, said "I did not realise how conservative my state was".

The state is pursuing a case against Planned Parenthood, which provides women's reproductive services throughout the United States, arguing that the group failed to make its contract doctors cooperate with an investigation into its practices.

John Sauer, Missouri's solicitor general, told Thursday's hearing the non-profit had "washed its hands of the issue".

Planned Parenthood's attorney Jamie Boyer argued meanwhile that Missouri was acting in bad faith, with "shifting interpretations of its regulations".

He said the organisation could not "in good conscience ask doctors to sit for an interview on wide-ranging (subjects) in an investigation which might result in criminal charges".

It will be up to Judge Michael Stelzer to decide whether to grant Planned Parenthood's request for a restraining order, or allow its licence to perform abortions in the state to expire on Friday night.

Concerted strategy

The Missouri case comes as more than a dozen US states - including recently Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana - have passed laws restricting abortion as part of a concerted strategy to push the issue before the Supreme Court.

The top US court, now dominated by a conservative majority, enshrined a woman's right to choose an abortion in 1973, allowing for conditions to be placed on it only after the first trimester of pregnancy.

The moves by the states generally have sought to roll back when abortions are permitted to as early as when a heart-beat is first detected - at around six weeks of gestation.

Most of the measures are expected to face legal challenges - and eventually end up before the Supreme Court.

Earlier this month Missouri lawmakers passed a bill banning abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy, including in cases of rape and incest.

Planned Parenthood alleges in its lawsuit that the state has sought to use its regulatory powers to deny it a licence.

It says the state's health department is attempting to shut down its abortion service by "unlawfully conditioning a decision on its routine license renewal application on completion of a supposed 'investigation' of a patient complaint".

Appearing on a local Fox affiliate, obstetrician-gynecologist Colleen McNicholas said, "by continuing to change the way that they are interpreting their own rules, it makes it impossible for us to be able to comply because we are just guessing what they think".

Changing rules

Missouri Governor Mike Parson, who recently signed the state's new abortion law, on Wednesday accused Planned Parenthood of "actively and knowingly violating state law on numerous occasions".

"Regardless if you support abortion or not, Planned Parenthood should be able to meet the basic standards of health care under the law," he said.

Many of the protesters in St Louis disagreed, with some arguing the governor was motivated by his Christian Baptist faith.

"He is trying to put his religion into law in Missouri," said Sara Sullivan, a 32-year-old mother of two daughters.

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