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House panel grills DHSS Director on Planned Parenthood

State representatives (front to back) Rick Brattin, Sue Meredith and Tila Hubrecht listen to testimony from DHSS Director Gail Vasterling Wednesday afternoon.

State lawmakers spent more than 90 minutes Wednesday grilling the state's top health official on how her agency oversees Planned Parenthood.

Wednesday's House hearing came a week after a Senate panel held a similar one. Both hearings focused heavily on how the state inspects abortion clinics. Department of Health and Senior Services Director Gail Vasterling told the House panel inspection of the state's two abortion clinics is no different from inspecting any other ambulatory surgical center. Lawmakers repeately asked Vasterling what that procedure is, but Vasterling said she did not know what the survey teams look for.

The hearings on Planned Parenthood come amid the release of several online videos which purport to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of organs and tissue from aborted fetuses. Planned Parenthood has said those videos are heavily edited and that it doesn't profit from the sale of fetal organs. Family physician Ed Weisbart told the panel its proceedings were "based on a lie."

"I wonder how many people have watched the full video, which I have," he said. "That was someone talking, and they were taken grossly out of context."

In a heated exchange with Weisbart, committee chair Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, replied that he had read the transcript of the entire Planned Parenthood video.

"It absolutely should be investigated, because if what is described in the video is happening in our state, would be a violation of state and federal law," Koenig said.

Vasterling said DHSS is unaware of any fetal tissue sales in Missouri. She said tissue leftover from an abortion always goes to a pathologist. The state's oversight ends there, though she said DHSS does review the pathologist's report. When asked about Planned Parenthood's Columbia facility, Vasterling said that facility only performs medically-induced abortions, not surgical abortions like the St. Louis facility. She said she had no concerns about the recent decision to renew that facility's license.

St. Louis Democrat Stacey Newman aired her frustration with the hearing on Twitter and toward the end of the hearing. Newman said lawmakers could have found most of the answers to the questions they asked in online state records. She called the hearings a "witch hunt" and said lawmakers still had no clear agenda as the hearing wrapped up.

Koenig said he planned to hold another hearing in the near future to incorporate public testimony.

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