Court rules abortion services can continue in Missouri -- for now
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Abortion services can continue in Missouri for now, a court ruled Friday, granting a temporary restraining order to keep open the sole clinic that performs the procedure in the US state.

The St. Louis clinic had been due to lose its license to carry out the procedure at midnight (0400 GMT), making Missouri the first American state without abortion provision in half a century.

But Judge Michael Stelzer ordered that the clinic's license "shall not expire and shall remain in effect until a ruling on petitioner's request for preliminary injunction" on June 4.

Planned Parenthood, which operates the clinic, has denounced what it calls a "nationwide crisis" over women's health as a string of states move to restrict access to abortions.

"The state of women's health is an emergency and a nationwide crisis -- and we need to respond with everything we've got," the family planning group said in a tweet.

Beyond Missouri, more than a dozen states with conservative majorities are chipping away at abortion rights, even though access has been guaranteed nationwide since a 1973 US Supreme Court decision.

- 'Deficient practices' -

The high court allows states to place some limits on abortion so long as they do not result in an "undue burden" for women.

The term is interpreted very differently from one state to another, and abortion access is generally much more readily available in western and northeastern parts of the country than in the South and the Midwest.

Missouri's Republican Governor Mike Parson recently welcomed a drop in the number of abortions from 20,000 to 3,000 in his state, which is home to six million people.

He has accused Planned Parenthood of "actively and knowingly violating state law on numerous occasions" and refused to renew the clinic's license.

Sanitary authorities say they found "deficient practices" at the St. Louis clinic during a routine inspection in March and have asked to question all doctors who performed abortions there over the past year.

But some have refused, fearing they would be incriminated without knowing the accusations against them.

- 'Red line' -

The state is "weaponizing the licensing and regulating process," said M'Evie Mead, director of policy at the local Planned Parenthood chapter.

The Missouri case comes as more than a dozen US states -- including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana -- have passed laws restricting abortion as part of a concerted strategy to push the issue before the Supreme Court.

The top US court is now dominated by a conservative majority, including two justice appointed by President Donald Trump. Its landmark Roe v Wade decision allows for conditions to be placed on abortion only after the first trimester of pregnancy.

The states restricting abortion access have generally sought to roll back when the procedure is permitted, to as early as when a heartbeat is first detected -- around six weeks of gestation, when many women do not yet know they are pregnant.

Most of the measures are expected to face legal challenges -- and eventually end up before the Supreme Court.

Six conservative states, Missouri included, now only have a single abortion clinic, compared to more than 150 in California.

Earlier this month, Missouri lawmakers passed a bill banning abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy, including in cases of rape and incest.

They also required doctors at abortion clinics to be affiliated with a hospital and to perform pelvic exams even for drug-based abortions.

Mead denounced the measures as "frankly medically unnecessary and inappropriate rules."