Missouri's abortion providers vow to continue helping women

“This is not a drill. This is not a warning. This is a public health crisis,” the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America said.
Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, the last free-standing abortion clinic in Missouri.
Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, the last free-standing abortion clinic in Missouri.Ali Galante / NBC News

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By Erika Edwards and Ali Galante

Doctors in Missouri may only have a few more days to perform abortions, but they insist their care for patients who want to terminate a pregnancy won't end anytime soon.

"Despite what happens on Friday, we will continue to help our patients access care when they need it,” Dr. Colleen McNicholas, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, said on a call with reporters today.

That includes helping women who are seeking to end a pregnancy find help in other states. “We will make sure Missourians who need abortion care will be able to get it, whether that be with us or with another provider,” McNicholas said.

McNicholas said the center takes care of several thousand women seeking an abortion each year. She and clinic director Dr. David Eisenberg spoke with NBC News on Friday, the day Missouri’s governor signed into law a bill that would prohibit abortions after eight weeks gestation.

“This is a government intrusion into the practice of medicine,” Eisenberg said.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America said Missouri’s health department is threatening not to renew the St. Louis Planned Parenthood’s license to provide abortions. The clinic is the only one in the state that offers abortion services.

Anita Murphy directs patient phone calls at the Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region in St. Louis, Missouri; some call to ask if they can still get abortion services.Ali Galante / NBC News

If the license is not renewed by May 31, doctors at the Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region will no longer be able to perform abortions, though they will still provide other medical care. That would leave more than 1 million women of childbearing age without access to abortion in the state.

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“This is not a drill. This is not a warning,” Dr. Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told reporters in the phone call. “This is real, and this is a public health crisis.”

The group announced it is filing a lawsuit against the state of Missouri in an effort to maintain abortion services past the May 31 deadline.

Doctors who perform abortions in Missouri were already grappling with how to handle that state's newly signed law banning abortions after eight weeks gestation, except in cases in which they are "medically necessary."

Obstetrician gynecologist Dr. Colleen McNicholas speaks with a patient at the Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region in St. Louis, Missouri.Ali Galante / NBC News

Doctors say that creates a huge problem, particularly in circumstances that require snap medical decisions. “How do I know what I think is a medical emergency will be viewed as such by the attorney general?” McNicholas asked.

“What a terrible place we are putting physicians in, a totally untenable ethical position where they have to choose between providing the appropriate care for their patient, or potentially going to jail or losing their medical license,” she added.

Some states’ new abortion bans have been referred to as “heartbeat” bills by politicians, and mean that abortions would be prohibited after a “fetal heartbeat” is detected. But doctors say what physicians are hearing at six to eight weeks gestation isn’t a true heartbeat; it’s just electrical activity.

“At six weeks, we’re talking about essentially two tubes that are aligned by some cardiac cells that can do some vibration,” McNicholas said. She says equating that electrical activity with a fully functioning heart is simply medically inaccurate.

Women seek abortions for a number of reasons, and the decision can be incredibly difficult.

“Sometimes the choice to end a pregnancy, even when it was a highly desired one, is a really difficult one for people,” Eisenberg said.

Jennifer Box, 38, of St. Louis, Missouri, was in such a position. She made the painful decision to end her pregnancy at 15 weeks. Doctors had discovered her growing fetus had a genetic disorder called trisomy 18, an abnormality that usually results in either stillbirth or the death of the baby within a year.

Jennifer Box says ending her pregnancy with a fetus with a rare and deadly chromosomal abnormality was the most compassionate choice for the baby, as well as her two older children.Courtesy Jennifer Box

Babies with trisomy 18 often have heart defects, difficulty eating and breathing, and are susceptible to serious infections.

“I made a decision in consultation with multiple doctors, genetic counselors and different hospitals. We made a medical choice as parents for our daughter,” Box said. She and her husband, Jake, found out the fetus was a girl, and named her Libby Rose.

“It was heartbreaking, but I can’t imagine giving birth to a child only to know that she would suffer indefinitely until she would die,” Box said.

“I believe my greatest act of love as her mother was to suffer myself instead.”

Meanwhile, physicians at the St. Louis Planned Parenthood say they will continue to provide assistance to women.

“When abortion is safe and accessible, it’s the safest medicine that’s provided,” Eisenberg said. “The fact is, it’s basic health care for women.”

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