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Politics & Policy

No, Missouri Officials Were Not Tracking Abortion Patients’ Cycles

An imaging table at the Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood St. Louis Region in St. Louis, Miss., May 28, 2019. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)

This week, an administrative hearing took place in St. Louis to determine the fate of the last abortion clinic in Missouri. In June, citing numerous health-and-safety violations, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services formally rejected the license application of the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis.

Planned Parenthood pursued legal action and later that month, Judge Michael Stelzer ruled that the state Administrative Hearing Commission was the proper venue for the lawsuit, since the litigation involved state licensing. Testimony in the latest round of the case concluded yesterday, and a decision is not expected until February.

The most recent hearing received extensive coverage from media outlets both in Missouri and across the country, and what dominated most of the reporting was the sensationalistic claim that Missouri officials were tracking the menstrual cycles of Planned Parenthood patients. This allegation was reported by a number of mainstream publications including the New York Times,  the Washington Post, and ABC News. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this claim is exceptionally misleading — and it was refuted by sworn testimony during the hearing.

Here’s what really happened.  During the initial inspection of the Planned Parenthood clinic, Missouri officials were concerned that the state had not been receiving complication reports for failed surgical abortions, as required by law. To isolate such cases, a department investigator analyzed abortion reports filed by Planned Parenthood and identified 67 instances in which the same woman had multiple abortions during the same year. These data were then narrowed to identify a specific case in which a failed abortion was not reported by Planned Parenthood — a violation of state law.

Only then was the case shared with Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Per state law, this individual abortion report, like all other abortion reports, contained data on the patient’s last normal menses. Williams never possessed a spreadsheet of patient information, and no patient data were ever released. The doctor obtained data from one patient, data required to be included on her abortion report. This is far from the way that this information was portrayed in reporting on the hearing.

According to testimony from Williams this week, there were four failed abortions at the St. Louis clinic. In one case, a patient underwent two failed abortions before the third abortion succeeded. In another case, the doctor failed to recognize that a patient was pregnant with twins, requiring a second abortion procedure. In still another case, a patient suffered life threatening blood loss during an abortion. The hearings also revealed that the Planned Parenthood clinic engaged in shoddy record-keeping, as clinic documents sometimes failed to provide information about the doctors who were present for the abortion procedures. It is sad, if unsurprising, that media outlets tend to mislead readers, exaggerating non-existent privacy violations instead of providing detailed coverage of abortion-clinic misconduct.

Michael J. New is a research associate at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and is an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New


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