JEFFERSON CITY — A highly watched court battle over a new Texas abortion law could have an effect in Missouri, where a similar law has been in place for years requiring doctors who perform abortions to have connections to nearby hospitals.
The Missouri law is cited by both abortion providers and opponents as one of the reasons why the state has few abortion clinics.
When the new Texas law took effect Friday, about one-third of that state's abortion providers had to stop performing the procedures. Those clinics have argued in court that the Texas law imposes an unconstitutional burden on women seeking abortions.
A panel of judges on 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has allowed the Texas law to remain in effect while it considers an appeal of a lower court decision blocking it as unconstitutional. But the decision ultimately could rest with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Were the Texas law to be overturned, physicians wanting to provide abortions could make a strong challenge to the similar Missouri law. Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri already is considering whether to file such a lawsuit, said Peter Brownlie, the group's president and CEO.
But if the Texas law is upheld, other states may start to become a little more like Missouri.
"Maybe what has happened in Missouri is what potentially will be happening in these states, where there will be fewer and fewer abortion clinics," said Sam Lee of Campaign Life Missouri and a longtime anti-abortion activist. "Women are going to have to be looking for alternatives or else traveling long distances."
Missouri has a history of enacting laws that limit abortions by placing requirements on the physicians who provide them.
A 1986 Missouri law required physicians performing abortions to have surgical privileges at a hospital that offers obstetrical or gynecological care or else face felony charges.
That law was upheld in 1989 by a panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against a challenge by Bolivar Escobedo, who performed abortions at two clinics in St. Louis County and another in Cape Girardeau. Escobedo, who claimed to have performed more than 50,000 abortions, was a licensed physician in Missouri but had surgical privileges only at hospitals in his native country of Peru.
The 8th Circuit interpreted the Missouri law to mean abortion providers needed hospital surgical privileges somewhere in the state — not another country — and noted that women still could get abortions by turning to other doctors than Escobedo.
In its recent decision allowing the Texas law to take effect, the 5th Circuit judges cited an excerpt from the Missouri ruling saying that a requirement for hospital privileges "furthers important state health objectives."
In 2005, Missouri tightened its law by requiring physicians performing abortions to have clinical privileges at a hospital offering obstetrical or gynecological care within 30 miles of the abortion clinic. A Springfield abortion clinic challenged the law and got a temporary restraining order from a federal judge, but the clinic then closed and the lawsuit was dropped — allowing the law to take effect. No one else has challenged it.
In 2007, the Missouri law got even tighter. Lawmakers passed a measure classifying abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical centers. That meant they had to comply with a previous state regulation requiring such centers to have an admittance agreement with a hospital located within 15 minutes of travel time.
Today, St. Louis is the only place in Missouri that still has an abortion clinic.
A Planned Parenthood facility in Columbia used to offer abortions on certain days but hasn't done so in about a year because it can't get a physician with clinical privileges at a local hospital, Brownlie said.
While hospital-privilege laws remain in effect in Missouri and a few other states, similar measures are on hold in several states because of court orders.
"What these laws do is to put in the hands of private hospitals, accountable to nobody, the power to decide whether or not abortion is available in a given area," Brownlie said.
He added: "We're basically, with our attorneys, waiting to see how the several laws play out."