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Senate summons Planned Parenthood leadership over group's refusal, so far, to provide documents

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, who is running for state attorney general, speaks during the Pachyderm Attorney General Forum on Saturday afternoon at Lincoln Days.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri Senate has voted to required the director of Planned Parenthood for St. Louis and Southwest Missouri to explain why the organization hasn’t released subpoenaed documents relating to the disposal procedures of aborted fetal tissue.

The part-line vote was in support of a resolution sponsored by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, that calls Mary Kogut, executive director and CEO of the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate to the chamber at 2 p.m. April 25.

Schaefer said, “I don’t believe that there is any argument that this body does not have the authority to subpoena these documents.”

Planned Parenthood doesn’t question the Senate’s power to subpoena the documents, but representatives for the organization indicated that a negotiation is needed.

At a public hearing on Schaefer’s resolution last week, Chuck Hatfield, Planned Parenthood’s lawyer, said the Senate has ignored multiple requests to discuss protecting patient privacy information within the requested documents.

“To date, the Senate seems to be uninterested in a reasonable discussion about how to get to the documents they need to conduct their work,” said Hatfield.

Schaefer says he’s been clear in communicating that he will accept documents with redacted information. In multiple public statements, he has suggested that Planned Parenthood is using patient privacy concerns as a smoke screen for illegal fetal tissue disposal procedures. 

“In the end, it’s very simple,” said Schaefer during a floor debate. “What are they hiding? Why won’t they simply disclose what their process is?”

The tension between Schaefer and Planned Parenthood goes back, at the very least, to last summer, shortly after videos were released by an anti-abortion group alleging that Planned Parenthood handles fetal tissue remains illegally. The videos have since been investigated by multiple parties.Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster found no evidence of wrongdoing in this state. And the individuals who created the videos were indicted by a grand jury with felony charges of tampering with government documents. 

The videos did cause enough controversy nationally that Schaefer set up an interim legislative panel titled the Sanctity of Life Committee to investigate the activities of Missouri Planned Parenthood clinics. 

“The fact that we have a Sanctity of Life Committee is based on a false premise,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, during debate on the resolution. 

In November 2015, Schaefer asked President Pro Tem of the Senate, Ron Richards, R-Joplin, to a sign a subpoena that would demand Planned Parenthood release six years of documents relating to fetal tissue disposal procedures. 

To this day, Planned Parenthood refuses. Schaefer says this is unacceptable.

“It is imperative that we protect the integrity of [the subpoena] process,” said Schaefer.

Schaefer indicated his resolution is simply the next step in that process. Before Kogut can be arrested or fined, she must have the chance to explain herself before the Senate.

After April 25, the Senate will vote on another resolution to decide whether Kogut should be held in contempt, which could result in a $300 fine and up to 10 days in jail.

Senate Democrats attempted to block a vote on the resolution, but were unsuccessful after two days of debate. Holsman, a vocal opponent of the resolution, indicated that anti-abortion measures are extreme this year because of the upcoming statewide elections. 

“This is election propaganda at its finest,” said Holsman.

Schaefer is running for attorney general this fall against Josh Hawley, a law professor at the University of Missouri. Hawley is also a staunch anti-abortion advocate. Some lawmakers suggest Schaefer is using his Senate seat as a platform to emphasize his commitment to anti-abortion policies. 

“You can be pro-life and still support Planned Parenthood,” said Holsman. “Ninety-three percent of the services they provide have nothing to do with abortion. In fact, those 93 percent of the services they provide are intended to prevent abortion.”

Earlier this week, Planned Parenthood advocates wearing shirts that read “Shame on Schaefer” walked the halls of Missouri’s capitol. They delivered a petition to Schaefer that opposes his ongoing efforts to decrease access to women’s reproductive health care in the state. It was signed by moe than 1,800 Missourians. 

M’Evie Mead, director of statewide organizing for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Missouri, says the subpoena is just one aspect of his wider efforts to cut funding and access to women’s reproductive health care.

“Right in the moment, the services he’s trying to cut people off from are annual exams, contraception, cancer screening and treatment,” said Mead. “That impacts every area of the state.”

Schaefer tweeted, "I'll stand with the overwhelming majority who oppose taxpayer funding of abortion clinics" and "Last month, nearly 10,000 Missourians signed a petition to support revoking Planned Parenthood's license."

Dave Robertson, chair of the Department of Political Science at UMSL, says Schaefer's actions aren't necessarily surprising. Election years often bring out extreme ideologies in the political landscape.

"Schaefer would certainly be able to benefit from taking a position that is very popular with the base of the Republican Party," said Robertson. "Planned Parenthood and many of the satires that have come out about it have really galvanized a lot of conservative Republicans. This comes up on both sides of the political isle every now and then when an organization is really able to act as a lightening rod for anger against one ideological position or another.

"Whether or not this can help candidates in the general election is a real, open question to the extent that this can be perceived as bullying and be used against a candidate in the general election. It has the potential to backfire a little bit." 

Mallory Daily is an intern at the State Capitol Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio. Follow on Twitter: @malreports