Here’s How Missouri’s Governor ‘Weaponized Government’ Against the State’s Last Abortion Clinic (Updated)

A former judge who has urged people to donate to a group that opposes abortion rights could have a say in whether Missouri's last abortion clinic remains open.

[Photo: Missouri Governor Mike Parson listens to a media question during a press conference.]
Gov. Mike Parson (R), on June 3 appointed former Macon County Associate Circuit Judge Philip Prewitt to the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission, a body that might determine the licensing of Missouri’s last clinic, according to an Associated Press (AP) report. Jacob Moscovitch / Getty Images

UPDATE, June 28, 1:28 p.m.: A Missouri commissioner on Friday issued a stay permitting the state’s last abortion clinic to continue operating until at least August while the legal fight over its license plays out in court.

UPDATE, June 24, 4:12 p.m.: A judge on Monday extended a preliminary injunction allowing the Planned Parenthood facility in St. Louis to remain open until June 28. Planned Parenthood will request that the Administrative Hearing Commission reverse the state health department’s decision against the clinic’s renewal. 

A former judge who advocated for an anti-choice organization could determine the fate of Missouri’s only standalone abortion clinic as it fends off a regulatory attack from the state’s health department.

Gov. Mike Parson (R) on June 3 appointed former Macon County Associate Circuit Judge Philip Prewitt to the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission, a body that might determine the licensing of Missouri’s last clinic, according to the Associated Press (AP). Attorneys for the state have argued the commission should resolve the dispute between Missouri health department officials and the state’s last standalone clinic.

The Missouri Supreme Court reprimanded Prewitt in 2015 for asking people online to donate to Ray of Hope Pregnancy Care Ministries, which operates two anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers. A state oversight organization determined Prewitt, who was on the bench at the time, had violated a rule barring judges from “personally [participating] in the solicitation of funds or other fundraising activities.”

Prewitt told the Macon County Home Press in October 2016 that the state supreme court’s reprimand against him “does not make it unfair for me to hear legal matters,” claiming “every judge brings biases to the bench.” Prewitt ran for a seat in the state legislature in 2000 as a Republican, receiving a $250 donation from Missouri Right to Life PAC, according to the AP. Prewitt said he would “consider recusing himself if requested by a party in the case,” the report said. He denied there would be a conflict in adjudicating the case.

He lost his most recent election bid and stepped down in December 2018.

The legal effort to save Missouri’s last standalone clinic has lasted weeks. A judge on June 10 ruled that the Planned Parenthood facility in St. Louis could remain open “until further order of this court.” Missouri’s health department has refused to renew the clinic’s license, claiming the organization has not complied with a web of rules created by anti-choice lawmakers. A status conference is set for Friday, when the state will update the court on the licensing efforts. Missouri’s last abortion clinic was slated to shut down after May 31, when health department officials were going to revoke its license to provide abortion services.

Pamela Merritt, co-director of Reproaction, a direct action group advancing reproductive justice, said Parson’s appointment of an anti-choice judge to the Administrative Hearing Commission was only the latest example of how the governor has “weaponized government to attack people trying to access abortion care.”

“This latest move comes after Parson’s [health department] head issued a rule mandating medically unnecessary invasive pelvic exams prior to abortion care,” Merritt told Rewire.News, referring to a state regulation that can be traumatic for survivors of sexual assault. “Missourians already face state-mandated assault when seeking abortion care, and now we are forced to question the integrity of the institutions established to protect the people from radical ‘leaders’ like Gov. Parson.”

“The only appropriate move is for Missouri to stop using government as a tool of oppression, and immediately renew [the Planned Parenthood clinic’s] license,” she said.”

This is just the latest example of Republican governors placing abortion rights foes on bodies that could sway abortion policy. Pro-choice advocates in 2012 decried Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s (R) appointment of an anti-choice activist to the Ohio State Medical Board and to a panel that would help choose a judge for the Ohio Supreme Court. Iowa’s Republican governor appointed members of a state medical board that implemented a rule in 2013 that would have effectively have banned the use of Planned Parenthood’s telemedicine abortion system. The Iowa Supreme Court later overturned the anti-choice rule.