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Her doctors told her she needed an abortion. Missouri law told her to go away

Freeman hospital in Joplin is the subject of a first-of-its-kind federal investigation over a denial of a needed abortion.
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Freeman hospital in Joplin is the subject of a first-of-its-kind federal investigation over a denial of a needed abortion.

Missouri’s ban on abortion, enacted minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade in June, contains an important exception. Not for cases of incest or rape, but for a “medical emergency.”

But that provision, written into the so-called trigger law passed by the Missouri legislature in 2019, only vaguely describes what a medical emergency is and contains no guidance on whether doctors can begin treating a patient before a medical situation becomes so dire that lives are at stake. That’s a problem for hospitals, since performing an abortion in violation of that law can result in a felony charge and up to 15 years in prison.

It was also a problem for Mylissa Farmer, who, at 17 weeks pregnant, was told by doctors in Freeman Hospital in Joplin that her baby would likely not survive delivery. Her doctors recommended terminating the pregnancy, but because of Missouri’s abortion ban, it couldn’t happen at their hospital. She was sent away.

In October, Farmer told her story in a bombshell report in the Springfield News-Leader, and from there the case has drawn a federal investigation, the first of its kind known to occur, into whether the hospital in Joplin violated federal law by refusing to provide needed medical care.

 Mylissa Farmer in a campaign ad, wearing a light purple cardigan, and sitting at a kitchen table near a coffee cup.
Screenshot via Youtube/Trudy Busch Valentine
Mylissa Farmer appeared in an Oct. 20 campaign ad. She blamed Attorney General Eric Schmitt for her doctors denying her an emergency abortion.

Susan Szuch, a health and public policy reporter for the Springfield News-Leader, told St. Louis on the Air on Friday that Farmer eventually went to a clinic in Granite City, Illinois — some 300 miles from her home — for an abortion.

“The doctors that she had seen at Freeman Hospital said that, generally, the best course of action would be inducing labor. They said specifically in her medical records that Missouri law supersedes their judgment,” Szuch said. “And so from there, she went on a harrowing journey and ended up having to travel out of state to receive care for this medical condition that her doctors said they couldn't treat her for.”

After Farmer went public with her story — which included appearing in a political ad against the candidacy of U.S. Sen.-elect Eric Schmitt — the case drew federal scrutiny. Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, a hospital that accepts Medicare and has an emergency department is prohibited from refusing to examine or treat anyone with an emergency medical condition.

The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services, said Michelle Banker, the director of reproductive rights and health litigation at the National Women’s Law Center, who represents Farmer.

“That was actually a violation of federal law, because federal law would have required care in this situation,” Banker told St. Louis on the Air. “This isn't new. For many years, folks have experienced similar issues where they've gone to an emergency department with a pregnancy-related emergency and been denied care because of hospital policy or a provider's refusal. Now, however, we're in a world without Roe v. Wade, states are banning abortion, and there's a lot of legal chaos. But what is clear is that federal law required this care.”

To learn more about Mylissa Farmer’s story, and where the unprecedented federal investigation might lead, listen to the full conversation with Susan Szuch and Michelle Banker on St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Susan Szuch and Michelle Banker discuss Missouri abortion investigation

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."
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