Missouri's only abortion clinic to stay open until at least August 1

(Reuters) - Missouri’s only abortion clinic will remain open for now after a state arbiter on Friday ordered a stay in response to Planned Parenthood’s challenge of the state health department’s refusal to renew the clinic’s license.

A banner stating "STILL HERE" hangs on the side of the Planned Parenthood Building after a judge granted a temporary restraining order on the closing of Missouri's sole remaining Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Bryant

Planned Parenthood, the women’s healthcare and abortion provider that operates the clinic, filed a petition with Missouri’s Administrative Hearing Commission on Tuesday after the group challenged the health department’s denial in state court and a judge referred the matter to the commission.

The clinic would have had to stop providing abortion services on Friday if the commission did not grant the stay, which allows it to stay open until its initial Aug. 1 hearing date.

In its ruling, the commission noted that the issue of abortion entails great public interests for opponents and proponents, but that the only question it was considering was a motion to stay the expiration of a statutory license.

“Consequently, the public interest of our concern is the procedural due process of licensees to appeal the decisions of regulatory bodies. We find that granting this stay sufficiently protects that interest,” the commission said.

Dr. Colleen McNicholas of the Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region said in a statement that they were relieved by the last-minute reprieve.

“This has been a week-to-week fight for our patients and every Missourian who needs access to abortion care,” McNicholas said. “There are two things that remain unchanged in Missouri: the uncertainty our patients face, and our will to continue fighting for their right to access safe, legal abortion.”

Missouri health officials declined to renew the St. Louis clinic’s license last week on the grounds it failed to meet their standards. If Missouri officials succeed in closing the clinic, it would become the only U.S. state without a legal abortion facility.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States. Missouri is one of 12 states to pass laws restricting abortion access this year, some aimed at provoking a U.S. Supreme Court review of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy.

“The terrifying reality is that access is hanging on by a thread with a narrowing timeline,” McNicholas, who is a physician at the clinic, said in a statement ahead of the ruling.

Judge Michael Stelzer had issued a temporary injunction on Monday letting the clinic stay open until Friday at 5 p.m. CT (2200 GMT), ahead of the decision of the commission, which serves as an independent arbiter in disputes between state agencies and individuals or groups.

On Friday, a group of civil rights groups, doctors and clinics sued Georgia seeking to overturn a law passed in March that bans abortions if an embryonic or fetal heartbeat can be detected.

And the U.S. Supreme Court sidestepped a major new challenge to abortion rights by declining to hear Alabama’s bid to revive a Republican-backed state law that would have effectively banned the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Separately in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s public health system will stop participating in the federal Title X program for as long as a “gag rule” is in effect that prevents medical providers from sharing information and counseling about abortion with their patients.

Missouri state officials have said one of their conditions for renewing the clinic’s license was to be allowed to interview several physicians who were involved in what they said were multiple life-threatening abortions at the clinic.

Planned Parenthood officials have said they do not directly employ all the clinic’s staff and cannot force certain health workers to give interviews.

Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and James Dalgleish