Accused of ‘tracking’ periods, state health chief faces calls for his removal
A few seconds of testimony from Missouri’s top public health official whipped up a full-blown public relations fiasco this week.
Dr. Randall Williams was testifying Tuesday at a hearing that will help determine whether the state’s last abortion provider stays open when he confirmed his department had "calculated" the dates of Planned Parenthood patients’ last menstrual periods as part of an investigation into patient safety.
Days later, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Senior Services would say investigators did nothing of the sort as they scoured data provided by Planned Parenthood for instances of suspected failed abortions at a St. Louis clinic.
The spokeswoman, Lisa Cox, would also decry news reports that said Williams kept a spreadsheet to “track” the periods as incorrectly implying the department was spying on patients.
But the backlash started well before that.
Liberal cable news host Rachel Maddow picked up the story, broadcasting it to millions of viewers across the country.
Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker called it a “dystopian” abuse of power.
Leading Missouri Democrats and Planned Parenthood, which has fought for months to keep its clinic's abortion license after the state refused to renew it in May, also denounced the department’s research as a disturbing act of government overreach.
"Missouri's top health official, Randall Williams, scrutinized menstrual cycles of women in this state in order to end abortion access," Yamelsie Rodriguez, president and CEO of Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region, said in a statement.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, called for Gov. Mike Parson to investigate whether patient privacy or laws were violated and whether Williams remains fit for his job.
“State law requires the health department director to be ‘of recognized character and integrity,’” she said in a statement. “This unsettling behavior calls into question whether Doctor Williams meets that high standard.”
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, seconded those sentiments in her own letter to Parson and said the department's actions ran afoul of state leaders' purported commitment to protecting citizens' privacy.
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She noted that Missouri was one of the last states to adopt REAL ID standards for driver's licenses and that as a state senator, Parson objected to the state providing concealed carry permit holder information to the federal government.
"With this kind of history and tradition in our state, I cannot imagine how Director Williams, a member of your Cabinet, thought it was proper to track the menstrual cycles of Missouri women," she wrote.
State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat running for governor in 2020, took the opportunity to blast Parson and call for Williams’ firing.
“Gov. Mike Parson has shown his willingness to weaponize his regulatory authority to interfere in gross, weird, and medically unnecessary ways,” she said in a statement. “Gov. Parson should fire Dr. Randall Williams immediately. If the governor won’t take this step now, then Missourians will hold him accountable at the ballot box.”
Cox, the health department spokeswoman, said neither Williams nor investigators “tracked” or “calculated” menstrual cycles or anything else inappropriate.
She pointed out that the dates of patients’ last menstrual periods were regularly filed with the state as part of abortion reports mandated by law and said the data was only sorted to identify cases of failed procedures after the department identified a case of one failed procedure for which it lacked a mandatory complication report.
The department’s Bureau of Vital Statistics started with a spreadsheet containing data from 3,000 reports submitted by Planned Parenthood, Cox said, and then filtered the data to include only patients who had more than one abortion in 2018.
Then, Cox said, investigators cross-referenced abortion dates with the dates of last menstrual periods.
“If that was the same for the same patient then it indicated a failed abortion,” Cox said.
The department didn’t find any other missing complication reports, but did identify instances of failed abortions that raised concerns.
Planned Parenthood officials have contended those failed abortions, which were followed by successful procedures, were "cherry-picked" out of thousands of otherwise unremarkable abortions to justify a politically-motivated attack on the clinic.
M’Evie Mead, director of policy and organizing for Planned Parenthood’s lobbying arm, added that the way the department used its patients' data — whether it’s called tracking, calculating or sorting — was deeply inappropriate.
“We absolutely contend that it was a gross abuse of power and misuse of data submitted for a different purpose,” she said in an interview Friday.
Parson, on the other hand, disagreed, telling reporters in Kansas City on Friday he would not call for an investigation into the matter.
The hearing on the clinic's license ended Thursday. A decision is not expected for at least several weeks, if not months.
The fight over the license is only one front in the battle over abortion this year.
Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri have also taken the state to court over a new law banning most abortions at eight weeks of pregnancy.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.