Jonathan Butler, a graduate student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, wrote an email on Nov. 2 to the university’s curators, asking for President Tim Wolfe’s resignation. One week later Wolfe was gone.
In his missive to the curators – a nine-member board appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate – who govern the university, he listed a string of recent events that he felt contributed to a “deteriorating culture [that] is like a gaping and infected void that can only be cured by scraping out the dead and degrading flesh and starting anew with a fleshing of the skin and application of proper antibiotics to begin the healing process.”
That night, announcing that he would embark on a hunger strike, he tweeted out the letter:
— JB. (@_JonathanButler) November 2, 2015
Included in his list of incidents was a curious one, which on face value wouldn’t seem to have much to do with racial equality: Planned Parenthood services being stripped from campus.
In recent weeks, campus demonstrations have spread from the University of Missouri and Yale to Ithaca and Smith colleges, Claremont McKenna and Virginia Commonwealth universities, along with several other colleges throughout the country, all in solidarity with the #BlackOnCampus and #ConcernedStudent1950 movement. Among the grievances are the scantiness of protocols in place to adequately respond to bias incidents, as well as the host of policies that affect access, class curricula, diversity training, and other practices and ingrained attitudes that protestors say contribute to a culture of neglect.
Although President Tim Wolfe resigned a week after Butler announced his campaign, he was not the only administrator who did so that day. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who had been the one to cancel health insurance for graduate students (another grievance listed in Butler’s letter), resigned, effective Jan.1, amid accusations of bowing to political pressure. Since he assumed the position in February 2014, he had also come under fire for his failure to respond to escalating racial tensions. Nine deans – among them the heads of the law, health, journalism, veterinary, public affairs and arts and sciences schools – called for his resignation, after the majorities of the English and Romance Languages and Literatures departments also voted for his removal, citing a lack of leadership that has led to a “toxic environment through threat, fear and intimidation.”
But Loftin was also accused of caving to political pressure on the issue of abortion.
After an anti-abortion group released videos earlier this summer that attempted to prove Planned Parenthood was harvesting fetal tissue for profit, several states, Missouri among them, launched investigations into the health care provider. In September, the committee formed for the investigation in Missouri, known as the Sanctity of Life, found no evidence of wrongdoing in the St. Louis Planned Parenthood location, which was the only one in Missouri to offer abortions. (So far, no states have found Planned Parenthood guilty of violating the law.)
But the Sanctity of Life Committee, led by State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia and a contender in the Missouri attorney general’s race next year, took this opportunity to look into other Planned Parenthood activities that they objected to.
One of them was a decades-long standing arrangement between University of Missouri medical, nursing and social work schools, which allowed students to conduct an optional residency at selected Planned Parenthood locations.
During a two-week period late last summer, the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU, also known as Mizzou), under Loftin, terminated 10 contracts with Planned Parenthood affiliates scattered across five cities in four different states. Obstetrics and gynecology residents had previously been given “the option of learning how to perform surgical and medical abortions,” according to letters obtained by the Columbia Missourian. An interested resident was once able to contract with the Columbia Planned Parenthood, where arrangements would be made for observation, training, and supervision of selected abortion services, said the letter. The university also terminated a contract with Planned Parenthood that allowed nursing students to take a rotation at the Planned Parenthood clinic, although an agreement was signed in October that allowed three nursing students to train at Missouri Planned Parenthoods, as long as they were not involved in any abortion proceedings.
As part of the hearing over the summer, testimony swirled around one nursing professor in particular, Kristin Metcalf-Wilson, who is also the lead nurse practitioner for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri. She was accused of recruiting Colleen McNicholas, a St. Louis doctor on faculty at Washington University who is licensed to perform abortions, to the Columbia Planned Parenthood outpost through her connections at MU. (The Columbia location has been unable to offer abortions since late 2012 because it did not have a doctor on staff who met state requirements, according to the Columbia Missourian, although it restarted medical abortion services in August.) The Columbia Planned Parenthood in July was approved by the state Department of Health and Senior Services for a license for medication-induced abortions, which usually involves a woman taking a pill like RU-46; they expect to offer surgical abortions in January.
Although McNicholas is not part of the Mizzou staff, as part of her requirements she must have “refer and follow” privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic, which would be University Hospital on the MU campus. “Refer and follow” means that she could refer patients to specific doctors and follow their care, but not admit or treat them herself, according to Elizabeth Sepper, a health care lawyer who serves on the board of Planned Parenthood.
MU Chancellor Loftin and State Sen. Schaefer were at that hearing. Loftin had promised Schaefer he would look into the “refer and follow” privileges and see how they were implemented. In September, the committee decided to strip the university of its “refer and follow” privileges, which in actuality only affected two people, one of them being Colleen McNicholas. And that meant she could no longer provide abortions at Planned Parenthood Columbia, leaving mid-Missouri without a qualified abortion provider. (The only other abortion provider in the state is in St. Louis, 125 miles east of Columbia.) Planned Parenthood supporters at the university then held a rally to protest the decision.
Schaefer, who spearheaded the campaign against Planned Parenthood, has moved further to the right in his campaign to be Missouri’s attorney general, calling into question the ethics of the University of Missouri-Columbia in granting his opponent in the primary, Republican Josh Hawley, leave from his job as a law professor. Given his credentials — Hawley successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that Hobby Lobby stores had the right to refuse to pay for contraception services — Schaefer sees him as a credible threat, according to the Kansas City Star.
When Loftin resigned as university chancellor on Nov. 9, Planned Parenthood immediately called for a reversal of the “refer and follow” policy, asking for a reinstatement of actions that would allow the Columbia clinic to continue to provide abortion services. Planned Parenthood publicly supported Butler in his hunger strike, and statements by Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, connected the lack of access for safe and reliable women’s health care to the larger racial justice movement on campus. “Issues of racial justice and access to health care — including safe, legal abortion — are interconnected and cannot be fought alone,” Richards said in a release.
But that wasn’t Loftin and Schaefer’s only connection when it came to Planned Parenthood.
A week before Loftin resigned, he received a letter from Schaefer calling into question the dissertation of a social worker PhD student. The student, Lindsay Ruhr, is studying what happens to women who decide not to have an abortion, specifically those who consent to Missouri’s new 72-hour waiting period and then never return for the procedure. The 72-hour waiting period requirement, which was passed into law in September 2014 over Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto, mandates that women must be counseled on “alternatives to abortion, be given an ultrasound examination to check on the gestational age of the fetus and sign a form consenting to the procedure,” according to the Columbia Tribune.
According to documents explaining the purpose of her study, Ruhr “aims to understand how the new 72-hour waiting period in Missouri is impacting women and their decision whether or not to have an abortion,” in addition to the requirement’s effect on “the abortion-making process.”
Schaefer’s objection is based on one line in the patient consent form: “The information you provide may help Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri improve its services to better meet the needs of women seeking abortions.”
Schaefer claimed that the study did “not appear to be designed as an objective, unbiased research,” and said it resembled a “marketing aid” for Planned Parenthood — one that uses taxpayer dollars, which would be against Missouri law. A key component of Schaefer’s allegation is that Ruhr’s research was being funded by taxpayers — but she told Al Jazeera America that she was receiving no scholarship or grant money for the project. As to the notion that the research would bolster Planned Parenthood’s image or condemn the 72-hour waiting period, she said that she intended to study the policy’s effect on women, and that “we don’t know” if it is beneficial or not.
Schaefer also objects to Ruhr’s dissertation advisor, the director of the School of Social Work, Dr. Marjorie Sable, who is a member of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri Board of Directors; Ruhr is employed by Planned Parenthood of St. Louis and Southwest Missouri as a research coordinator. The School of Social Work was the only school at Mizzou whose contract with Planned Parenthood wasn’t revoked in September.
The university is standing by the study, and it had been approved by the International Review Board, which has to approve all research involving human subjects.
Critics of the study could be worried that if the findings reveal that women’s health care needs aren’t being met, it could put pressure on the state to bolster Planned Parenthood’s resources. Although abortions in the U.S. have decreased, women of color are likelier to have them than white women. Studies have also shown that black women are likelier to experience poorer health and discrimination.
Jonathan Butler and his allies undoubtedly were aware of the discrimination students faced on campus with regards to access to health care. And that’s why they’re fighting for it.
Photo: Students listen at a press conference at Traditions Plaza at Carnahan Quad, on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri, November 9, 2015. (REUTERS/The Maneater/Elizabeth Loutfi)