By Crystal Thomas

A St. Louis judge has ordered that Missouri's sole outpatient abortion provider -- the Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis -- be allowed to keep its doors open for now.

However, in his order granting a preliminary injunction Monday, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Michael Stelzer made clear he disagreed with some of the main arguments made by Planned Parenthood's attorneys.

He ordered the state health department to officially deny or grant renewal of the clinic's license by June 21, in order for the clinic to appeal the decision to the state's administrative hearing commission.

The clinic's license lapsed May 31, while its application for a new license was pending. The clinic sued three days before the old license expired after the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services made clear it would not consider its application without interviewing seven doctors who had provided treatment at the clinic as part of an investigation into patient care.

Five of the seven physicians have declined to be interviewed. Planned Parenthood has said it cannot compel the doctors to comply with DHSS's investigation because they are not employees, but rather contracted through teaching hospitals and medical schools. Stelzer ruled that testimony from four of the physicians was irrelevant to what the court was trying to decide.

In his order, Stelzer agreed with DHSS's main argument that the appropriate venue for the Planned Parenthood to challenge the state on licensing matters was the Administrative Hearing Commission, or AHC. The commission includes appointed judges that handle disputes over decisions made by state agencies and whose opinions are open to judicial review.

Stelzer granted the preliminary injunction because by letting the clinic's license lapse without approving or denying its application, the department had not taken an "official action" that Planned Parenthood could appeal. During a hearing last week, DHSS had maintained that not weighing in on the renewal application was the same as a rejection.

During the same hearing, a Planned Parenthood attorney had said that even if the clinic were to take the matter to AHC, it didn't know "what in the world" it would be appealing. DHSS has not disclosed the scope of its investigation, nor has it given the clinic a list of findings it could contest.

Stelzer rejected Planned Parenthood's main argument that the regulations surrounding abortion provider licensure exceeded the state's general licensing laws and should be declared invalid.

Planned Parenthood's ability to provide abortions will remain intact until further order by Stelzer.

Shortly after Stelzer's ruling, Planned Parenthood of St. Louis issued a statement, declaring victory but maintaining the fight was not over.

"Today's ruling gives doctors like me the ability to wake up tomorrow and continue providing safe, legal abortion in the last health center in the state that provides abortion care," Dr. Colleen McNicholas, a physician with the clinic, said. "For patients, that means for now, they can continue to make decisions about their bodies, lives, and future in their home state."

A request for comment to DHSS was not immediately returned.

(c)2019 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)