AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Missouri's only health clinic that offers abortions is set to close its doors tomorrow barring a last-minute reprieve from the courts. At issue here are state health regulations. Planned Parenthood, which runs the clinic, has complied with all but one. When we spoke with Planned Parenthood's president, Leana Wen, earlier this week, she described it this way.
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LEANA WEN: The state of Missouri is requesting that seven physicians who have worked in our health centers be subject to interrogation, and they're specifically saying that our doctors - if they consent to this interrogation, they would be threatened with losing their medical license and even face criminal prosecution. And this is a chilling effect for medical professionals all across the country.
CORNISH: Let's hear now from the head of Missouri's Department of Health and Senior Services, Dr. Randall Williams. We started with his response to that charge.
RANDALL WILLIAMS: For the 4,000 entities we regulate, it is very common practice that we are allowed to talk to providers. Of the seven doctors who were involved in the care of the patients that we have concerns about, three of them are trainees, but they are doing procedures in which there were outcomes that we have to by law investigate. So...
CORNISH: And when you say outcomes, were there deaths? Can you talk about what these violations were?
WILLIAMS: I can only say that they were concerns about standard of care and policy. And all of that information will be made public in our final report, but I cannot speak to it in detail now. What Planned Parenthood is doing here is literally unprecedented. It's...
CORNISH: In what way?
WILLIAMS: They've always cooperated in the past. We've interviewed their doctors for years. This year is the first time they've ever said that they wouldn't be interviewed.
CORNISH: You know, Missouri just signed a bill into law banning abortion beginning at the eighth week of pregnancy. Is that what's different here? I mean, essentially you have the potential for criminalization for some of these people who provide the service.
WILLIAMS: No, that's completely separate because that bill doesn't go into law until August. And that's policy. This is regulatory. And we've been issuing licenses to Planned Parenthood for many, many years, and we've issued two in the last two years since I've been here. I was confirmed unanimously by the Senate, Democrats, Republicans. Of the 6 million people in Missouri, I'm sure many are pro-life. Many are pro-choice. But our duty is to maintain the public trust by regulating these facilities such that they follow the law, regulations and keep people safe.
CORNISH: The state said that fewer than 3,000 abortions were performed in Missouri. This was in 2018. So that's an example of the number of people who need this service. What is your message to them?
WILLIAMS: At this point in time, abortion is legal in Missouri. And so all we would ask is that those who provide it follow the law and practice standard of care. And if they're doing that, as the governor said yesterday, they have a right to practice. And as long as they comply - and they have complied with two issues. We're still dealing with the third. We still have another day and a half. And my message would be, if they comply, then by law we would issue their license.
CORNISH: How is the department preparing in case this clinic is shut down for people who will no longer be able to get abortions? What kind of care are you planning to provide?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Access is always important to us, and so again, we would hope to continue to work with Planned Parenthood. And again, as long as they meet the rules and regulations and comply, we will. But to answer your question specifically, as you know, Missouri is contiguous to eight states, and so there's certainly abortion facilities very close by in Illinois and Kansas.
CORNISH: So your suggestion is to leave the state if you want to get an abortion.
WILLIAMS: Well, I think my suggestion would be to have Planned Parenthood do as they've done in the past and comply with the investigation. And I would be hopeful if they would do so that we would have a resolution.
CORNISH: Dr. Randall Williams is the director of Missouri's Department of Health and Senior Services. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
WILLIAMS: Audie, thank you so much for having me on the show.
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