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Planned Parenthood leader says Missouri doctors fear prosecution for lifesaving abortions

Dr. Colleen P. McNicholas told a joint committee of Congress Tuesday that the Supreme Court’s decision to allow states to ban abortions will put people who need abortions at greater risk because doctors must now decide if they are sick enough for a life-saving abortion allowed under state law, and sometimes that is too late.
St. Louis Public Radio
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Dr. Colleen P. McNicholas told a joint committee of Congress Tuesday that the Supreme Court’s decision to allow states to ban abortions will put people who need abortions at greater risk because doctors must now decide if they are sick enough for a life-saving abortion allowed under state law, and sometimes that is too late.

Dr. Colleen P. McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, said Missouri’s ban on abortions has led doctors and pharmacists to deny patients vital medications. She said patients who need lifesaving abortions are now at risk, because doctors have to wait for guidance from lawyers.

Now that abortions are banned in Missouri, Planned Parenthood doctors in Illinois are seeing a sharp increase in patients, and Missouri doctors have become fearful of performing lifesaving abortions, one of the organization’s top doctors said Tuesday.

The organization has seen appointments triple in southern Illinois since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed states to ban abortions, said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri.

People are coming to Illinois clinics from states where abortions are illegal, which puts a strain on clinic workers and patients, she said.

“We have people navigating which bill goes unpaid, who can watch their kids, which car do I have that's going to make it the furthest or scouring the internet for the cheapest flight, just access basic health care,” McNicholas said in an interview with St. Louis on the Air.

Before the high court’s decision, patients in Planned Parenthood clinics in the region could receive an abortion within three days. She said now people have to wait about three weeks because appointments are scarce. That puts more stress on the doctors who may have to start working about 12 hours a day or seven days a week to meet the demand, she said.

“The reality is with tens of thousands of people needing to see care now in far fewer places, there will be delays in care which will lead to preventable harm,” McNicholas said.

McNicholas said Missouri’s ban on abortions except for medical emergencies that may save the patient’s life is confusing for Missouri doctors because many wonder “How sick is sick enough?” before they can perform abortion care.”

She also is seeing a high number of patients with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer or other conditions being denied medications from their doctors or pharmacists because the drugs might terminate a pregnancy or they are used by doctors to perform abortions.

McNicholas is so concerned about patients' health that she told a congressional committee Tuesday that people will be at risk because doctors have to wait for permission to prescribe drugs or perform lifesaving abortions.

“When the consequence of violating the law is criminal, doctors are put in impossible positions, where they know the right care, they know what to do to help somebody, but yet they have to wait, making folks sustain totally preventable harm,” she told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

McNicholas hopes her testimony will lead lawmakers to work with the Biden administration to provide resources to patients in states where abortions are illegal and to the clinics in states seeing an influx of patients seeking abortions.

“Whether you live in Missouri or Illinois or Texas, you deserve access to every available health care option to live your most healthy and dignified life,” McNicholas said.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Andrea Henderson joined St. Louis Public Radio in March 2019, where she covers race, identity and culture as part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America. Andrea comes to St. Louis Public Radio from NPR, where she reported for the race and culture podcast Code Switch and produced pieces for All Things Considered. Andrea’s passion for storytelling began at a weekly newspaper in her hometown of Houston, Texas, where she covered a wide variety of stories including hurricanes, transportation and Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inauguration. Her art appreciation allowed her to cover arts and culture for the Houston African-American business publication, Empower Magazine. She also covered the arts for Syracuse’s Post-Standard and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.
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