ST. LOUIS (AP) - A Missouri commissioner on Friday ruled that the state's only abortion clinic can continue providing the service at least until August as a fight over its license plays out, adding that there's a "likelihood" that the clinic will succeed in the dispute.
Administrative Hearing Commissioner Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi granted what's called a "stay," which will allow the St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic to continue providing abortions past Friday.
The state health department last week refused to renew the clinic's license, but a St. Louis judge issued a court order allowing the procedure to continue through Friday.
St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer wrote in his ruling that the order would give Planned Parenthood time to take their case to the Administrative Hearing Commission, where Stelzer said the licensing fight must begin.
The Administrative Hearing Commission scheduled a hearing on whether the state was right to not renew the license Aug. 1 in St. Louis.
The state has said concerns about the clinic arose from inspections in March. Among the problems health department investigators have cited were three "failed abortions" requiring additional surgeries and another that led to life-threatening complications for the mother, The Associated Press previously reported , citing a now-sealed court filing.
The Department of Health and Senior Services wants to interview physicians involved in those abortions, including medical residents who no longer work there. Planned Parenthood has said it can't force them to talk.
The interviews are a major sticking point in the fight over the clinic's license, and attorneys for the health department wrote in legal filings to the commission that physicians' refusal to talk "presents the final, critical obstacle."
But Dandamudi wrote that the physicians' stonewalling "in itself does not constitute a failure to comply with licensure requirements."
"Because DHSS relies substantially on the lack of these interviews as grounds for denial, we find there is a likelihood that Petitioner will succeed in its claim," Dandamudi wrote in his order granting a stay, referring to the clinic and its effort to stay open.
A spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General's Office, which is representing the state in the dispute, in a Friday email said attorneys are reviewing the order to determine next steps.
Planned Parenthood has said Missouri is using the licensing process as a weapon aimed at halting abortions.
The organization and its supporters plan to celebrate Friday in St. Louis and unveil a banner that "sends a strong message" to Republican Gov. Mike Parson and the state's health director.
"We are relieved to have this last-minute reprieve, which means patients can continue accessing safe, legal abortion at Planned Parenthood in St. Louis for the time being," said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an OB-GYN at Reproductive Health Services at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, in a statement. "This has been a week-to-week fight for our patients and every Missourian who needs access to abortion care."
The fate of the clinic has drawn national attention because Missouri would become the first state since 1974, the year after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, without a functioning abortion clinic if it loses its license. The battle also comes as abortion rights supporters raise concerns that conservative-led states, including Missouri, are attempting to end abortion through tough new laws and tighter regulation.
Parson signed legislation on May 24 to ban abortions at or beyond eight weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest.
The number of abortions performed in Missouri has declined every year over the past decade, but uncertainty in Missouri is sending women to neighboring states, particularly Illinois and Kansas.
Missouri health department statistics show that abortions in Missouri reached a low of 2,910 last year. Of those, an estimated 1,210 occurred at eight weeks or less of pregnancy.
The Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, 10 miles (16 kilometers) from St. Louis, has seen a big increase in Missouri clients since 2017, said Alison Dreith, the clinic's deputy director. That year, Missouri adopted a more restrictive abortion law, including giving the attorney general power to prosecute violations.
Dreith said about 55 percent of patients at Hope Clinic are from Missouri, 40 percent from Illinois and 5 percent from elsewhere around the country. The clinic attracts clients from across the U.S. in part because Illinois allows the procedure for up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, longer than most states, she said.
The Granite City clinic saw about 3,000 total patients in 2017. Missouri's more restrictive law played a big role in the number spiking to 3,800 in 2018, Dreith said.
This year, she expects well over 4,000 patients. So far in 2019, the number of Missourians at the Hope Clinic has spiked 30 percent due to concerns about the St. Louis clinic's license and other anti-abortion efforts, Dreith said.
"Our patients are calling us with a lot of anxiety because they're seeing the headlines that abortion is banned," Dreith said.
Information from the state of Kansas shows that about 3,300 of the 7,000 abortions performed there last year involved Missouri residents, meaning that more Missourians get abortions in Kansas than in their home state. Kansas has an abortion clinic in Overland Park, a Kansas City suburb just 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the state line.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Associated Press writer Summer Ballentine reported from Jefferson City, Missouri.