There’s a reason why women and feminists these days are so quick to refer to Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” when it comes to describing America’s abortion politics.
The latest eerie resemblance between our present day society and the one set in the book can be seen playing out in Missouri, where the state’s last clinic that provides abortion services is struggling to remain open. According to the Kansas City Star, as part of an ongoing hearing in which the St. Louis Planned Parenthood clinic is fighting to continue to provide abortion care after the state refused to renew its license, Republican-appointed director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Randall Williams, admitted that he has been tracking the menstrual periods of women who visit Planned Parenthood clinics.
On Wednesday, the department in a statement called it “irresponsible reporting” and denied claims that Williams tracked the cycles of Planned Parenthood patients (while acknowledging officials had a spreadsheet, which they said Williams saw for the first time at his deposition).
Missouri is no stranger to limiting abortion access or trying to control women’s reproductive rights. After all, this is the state that gave us Todd Akin and the concept of “legitimate rape.”
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dr. Williams said that abortion “if carefully regulated…is safe,” and testified that the St. Louis clinic’s abortion success rate is on par with the national average. And while the state’s last abortion clinic remains open, a final ruling on the clinic’s fate is not expected until at least February.
In the meantime, this is how Missouri’s state government is regulating the last abortion provider within its borders while trying to shut it down – with what seems like surveillance of the most intimate of patient information. Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (D-Springfield) has called on the governor, Mike Parson, to investigate Williams’s testimony.
But the story gets even more bizarre.
Dr. Williams testified that the purpose of the spreadsheet, compiled at his request by the state’s main inspector, was to identify what he considered to be “failed” abortions, according to the Star (a characterization that the health department denied in its statement). The spreadsheet reportedly included medical identification numbers, the gestational ages of fetuses and the date of the patient’s last period – but didn’t include the patient’s name.
The Star reported that the state alleges that it discovered evidence of four women who needed to return to the clinic more than once to have a successful surgical abortion. According to that report, “The ‘failed’ abortions led the department to have ‘grave concerns’ that caused it to withhold the St. Louis clinic’s license.”
After the hearing, Yamelsie Rodriguez, CEO of Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, described the spreadsheet as “deeply disturbing.”
In a statement, Rodriguez in a called the spreadsheet “government overreach at its worst.” She also said, “It shadows the Trump administration’s history of tracking the periods of refugee girls under the government’s care. This is outrageous and disgusting.”
While all this is outrageous and disgusting, it is not the first time Williams has been in the spotlight for trying to control women and our bodies. A state policy mandating that doctors perform a pelvic exam on women three days before surgical abortions brought him national scrutiny; he eventually reversed the policy after Planned Parenthood called it “invasive” and “medically unnecessary.”
In North Carolina in 2017, Williams was also widely criticized after toxicologist Ken Rudo took issue with Williams’ saying that well water near Duke Energy’s coal ash pits was safe. Williams, who was formerly North Carolina’s public health director, rejected state scientists’ warnings against drinking the water, which contained a chemical known to cause cancer. According to local reports, Williams did not comment but said in a deposition he rescinded warning notices because they were raising “unwarranted” fears.
But what is playing out in Missouri speaks volumes about where the state and America are at large when it comes to limiting abortion access and controlling women. It is clueless, gross and perverted.
Why is it that we won’t track gun sales or pass universal background checks, but a state government can track women’s menstrual cycles? In 2019? In America?
I wonder how Dr. Randall Williams or his state inspectors would feel if their bodily fluids were analyzed over the months and years they were in office and put on a state-controlled spreadsheet?
I hope women in Missouri gather at their state capitol building to ask their legislators exactly that.