How Local Anti-Abortion Forces Put Missouri’s Last Clinic at Risk

It’s been widely reported that public officials in Missouri are working to close the state’s only abortion clinic left standing after years of ideological scrutiny by anti-abortion advocacy groups and the officials who support them. But most reporting on the potential closure has focused on sensational storylines that depict concerns about the center, which have led to health department investigations—not where those concerns have come from, and the manufactured narrative about them that came from a local anti-abortion activist group focused on making Missouri “abortion free.”

What has flown under the radar is the influence of a group called Team P.L.A.Y, which has waged a decade-long campaign of harassment against the Planned Parenthood in St. Louis. 

Missouri’s last abortion clinic, a Planned Parenthood, is under attack. (Charles Edward Miller / Creative Commons)

Team P.L.A.Y.—which stands for Prayer, Legislation, Activism and You—uses tactics popularized by Operation Rescue, the national organization best known for its violent and disruptive demonstrations. That includes tracking and compiling data any time they see an ambulance at the St. Louis clinic, and then releasing their so-called findings to elected officials and the public in an attempt to paint a false narrative about the safety of abortion services. 

To be clear, there is no dispute about the number of ambulance calls. However, the portrayal is appalling in its dishonestly. The ambulance numbers that are compiled lack any nuanced data. Team P.L.A.Y only knows what they report from a distance, standing outside the clinic’s bound— not the medical reasons for the call, the precautions taken by the medical staff or even if the patient was undergoing an abortion procedure in the first place.

The “report” turned in to government officials by Team P.L.A.Y also bears no resemblance to PPSP official state reporting or abortion safety numbers in general. Abortion holds an enviable record of safety in medicine with an incredibly low complication rate, and the 1.9 percent complication rate reported in Missouri is in line with the national numbers from a landmark study in 2018 left no doubt that abortion is incredibly safe. (The complication rate for colonoscopy, just for comparison, is 2.8 percent—and there has yet to be a move from the state to further examine health centers performing that procedure, or groups stationed outside those doctors’ offices tracking their ambulance numbers.)

According to the evidence brought forth, there is literally nothing amiss at St. Louis’ Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services that should have led the state to even consider shutting down the health center. Except, that is, pressure from anti-abortion groups such as Team P.L.A.Y.

During recent testimony, John Langston—longtime inspector of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic—voiced concern over pressure from certain legislators and anti-abortion organizations to inspect the clinic more often and with much higher standards than usual. While he didn’t explicitly mention Team PLAY, there is reason to believe that it is one of the organizations he is referring to.

In deposition testimony released on October 31, John Langston, the former head of the Bureau of Ambulatory Care—which is the part of the Health Department that oversees abortion facilities—said that he felt pressure to find violations, and that the pressure came from anti-abortion legislators and “hard core pro-life folks.”

Through a public records request, Equity Forward uncovered one such request from Team P.L.A.Y. to the state Attorney General calling for an investigation into Planned Parenthood. Additional deposition footage released on October 31 shows William Kobel, a state health inspector, noting that he saw nothing in his inspections that would indicate unsafe conditions. 

Public Records Obtained By Equity Forward 6/10/19, Page 18.

Of course there weren’t—because abortion is safe, and this clinic is safe, and doctors who provide abortion care, just like medical professionals in every other field, are always working to make it even safer. Shutting down the last remaining abortion provider in the state and forcing those who seek abortion to travel long distances, wait longer for appointments and take desperate measures will lead to fatal consequence for those who need quality, accessible care the most. 

The irony of actions by pro-life organizations such as Team P.L.A.Y. is not lost on us. The organization will never achieve the goal they’re recklessly striving toward of seeing “an abortion-free Missouri.”

Abortions, and the need for them, will never come to an end in Missouri or anywhere else in the country. They will, however, become less safe if there are no health centers left to provide them.


Mary Alice Carter is the Senior Advisor of Equity Forward—a team of researchers, lawyers and communications professionals that use research to counteract the damaging work of anti-reproductive health forces.