With Missouri potentially on the verge of becoming the only state without a clinic that performs abortions, Democrats in Congress are holding a hearing Thursday to look into the regulation of clinics by state officials.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's hearing on "state efforts to undermine access to reproductive health care" will focus on the rise of strict health regulations for clinics and doctors who perform abortions. Reproductive rights groups say officials who oppose abortion rights are, for political purposes, using excessive and arbitrary rules to shut down clinics and prevent doctors from performing abortions.
Lawmakers "will examine Missouri's onerous restrictions as a case study showing how states — emboldened by the Trump administration's harmful policies — are eliminating access for their residents," Acting Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney said in a statement to NPR. (This will be Maloney's first hearing as acting chairwoman, according to committee aides; she stepped in after the death of Chairman Elijah Cummings.)
Witnesses include Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer with Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. Her clinic in St. Louis that has been at the center of a dispute with Republican Gov. Mike Parson's administration. Parson has said he has "serious health concerns" about the facility.
At a hearing in late October to determine the clinic's future, Missouri officials testified that they believed the clinic had put patients at risk by failing to follow proper medical procedures. According to St. Louis Public Radio, McNicholas "conceded that 'doctors are allowed to make mistakes,' but she said the four patients who suffered complications at the clinic represented a tiny fraction of the thousands who receive care at the clinic each year."
During that hearing, it also was revealed that officials had kept track of some patients' menstrual cycles in an effort to detect failed abortion procedures.
In an interview with NPR, McNicholas said Missouri is "a perfect example of how the regulatory process, specifically the licensing process, has been weaponized — to political ends — really to end abortion at all costs."
Reached by email, Dr. Ingrid Skop, of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists, said she believes such laws and regulations are necessary to protect patients. She pointed to the recent discovery of more than 2,200 fetal remains at the Illinois home of a former abortion provider after his death in September, adding, "due to the political nature of abortion, health departments and others tasked with supervising the practice of medicine are often unwilling to ensure that basic medical competence and facility standards are maintained."
On their own, House Democrats can't do much to prevent states from regulating abortion providers. But they can spotlight the issue through hearings like the one this week.
It comes as a growing number of states are passing restrictive abortion laws, and as the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to take up a Louisiana law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges.
That law, which advocates say would force clinics in Louisiana to close, is similar to a Texas law struck down by the court in 2016. The current court – which now includes two of President Trump's conservative nominees – is seen as far more willing to uphold state abortion restrictions that previous courts would have deemed unconstitutional.