Columbia Daily Tribune: Subpoena fight sets tone for legislative debate on abortion

A state Senate committee pushing for a showdown over its power to subpoena private parties and bills to ban the donation of fetal tissue for research will frame the abortion debate in the legislative session that begins Wednesday.

The Senate Interim Committee on Sanctity of Life’s report was signed by its seven Republican members, but not the two Democrats. Chairman Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said there is no doubt about the committee’s authority to subpoena documents and testimony from Mary Kogut, president of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, and James Miller of Pathology Services Inc.

“That is like saying the U.S. Congress can only subpoena federal government workers and not anyone in the private sector,” Schaefer said.

The committee was formed last year after national anti-abortion activists released videos they said showed Planned Parenthood personnel negotiating the sale of fetal organs. No investigation initiated since the release of the videos has produced evidence that state or federal laws were broken by Planned Parenthood affiliates.

An investigation by Attorney General Chris Koster of abortions performed in June — the month before the videos were released — showed no evidence that tissue was being provided for research.

The same committee put heavy political pressure on the University of Missouri to cancel agreements and revoke the clinical privileges of the doctor providing abortions at the Columbia Planned Parenthood clinic. Abortions have not been performed at the Columbia clinic since Nov. 23 because of the university’s actions, which have provoked a legal battle over the clinic’s license.

The committee’s report calls for the Senate to initiate contempt proceedings against Kogut and Miller, which under the Missouri Constitution could include a 10-day jail term and a fine of $300. A Planned Parenthood attorney responded to the subpoenas last month by questioning the committee’s authority to demand the information.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Couer, said in a news release that the committee has uncovered no evidence fetal tissue has been mishandled.

“This committee, despite multiple hearings, subpoenas, and sunshine requests, has produced nothing to suggest Planned Parenthood has broken any laws or engaged in unethical practices,” she said. “Sadly, these facts, while inconvenient, haven’t stopped the chairman from using his committee for political gain. He’s not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Action to enforce the subpoena could come quickly. Then lawmakers will turn to proposals stemming from the committee’s work, including Missouri Right to Life’s top-priority bill in response to the videos, a ban on the donation of fetal tissue from abortions for research.

State Rep. Kathy Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, filed the bill in the House. It would also tighten the definition of hospital privileges for abortion providers, changing the requirement from “clinical” to “surgical and admitting” privileges.

The Columbia clinic was licensed July 15 to provide medication-induced abortions after Colleen McNicholas, a St. Louis obstetrician and gynecologist, was granted “refer and follow” privileges by MU Health Care. The university stopped offering refer and follow privileges, which did not allow a doctor to admit or treat any patients on MU premises, on Dec. 1.

The requirement is necessary even when a doctor is administering medication, Swan said.

An identical bill has been filed by Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis.

Other abortion proposals filed so far deal with parental notification, expanding a 1986 law that says life begins at conception and banning abortions when parents want to terminate a fetus with Down syndrome.

Abortion rights supporters will use grass-roots action to oppose the bills, said Alison Dreith, director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri.

“It is not what voters want, just Republicans pandering to the far right to come out ahead with donors or in the primary, as we are seeing with Sen. Schaefer,” Dreith said.

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