D.A. Williams fires off letter to Pa. lawmakers over new abortion-clinic bill

Posted: May 07, 2011

HARRISBURG - In an unusual move, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has waded into a bitter dispute over whether legislation aimed at tightening state regulations for abortion clinics is really a stealth effort to limit access to abortions.

Williams wrote a two-page letter this week to legislative leaders regarding House Bill 574, which would have the law treat most abortion clinics as "ambulatory surgical facilities" and thus subject to stricter inspections and operating regulations.

The bill was crafted in response to a grand jury's grisly report on physician Kermit Gosnell's West Philadelphia clinic. The jurors said Gosnell, now charged with murder and other crimes, routinely performed late-term abortions and killed babies, some near full term, who were born alive.

Though the report questioned why the clinics were not regulated like other ambulatory surgical centers, Williams argued that the bill "goes beyond the scope" of the report.

"The intent of the grand jury's recommendation was to assure that women who seek the services of an abortion provider are afforded the same protections as those who go to other medical providers," Williams wrote.

He added: "The grand jurors did not recommend that the legislature . . . include all abortion clinics. Nor did it recommend that abortion clinics be singled out for licensure . . . simply because they offer abortions."

His letter ignited sharp reactions in Harrisburg. Said Rep. Matt Baker (R., Bradford), chairman of the House Health Committee and the bill's sponsor: "I don't understand why he wrote the letter and who influenced him. . . . It's almost as if he's trying to defend, on the one hand, his grand jury report. Then, on the other hand, he's raising all kinds of questions that contradict his own grand jury's recommendations."

Williams, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment further Friday.

Since the Supreme Court's landmark 1970s abortion ruling, states have written a patchwork of laws regulating when and under what circumstances a woman can get an abortion. The grand jury found that Pennsylvania officials had shied away from stringent inspection of clinics so as not to be perceived as erecting barriers to abortion.

The report questioned, in one damning paragraph after another, why state health officials didn't treat the clinics as ambulatory surgical facilities - subject to stringent standards, annual inspections, and unannounced visits to investigate complaints.

"Under the plain language" of existing law, the report said, "abortion clinics should be regulated, licensed, and monitored as ambulatory surgical facilities."

Baker's bill would do that, covering all clinics that provide "surgical abortions." Baker said the sole exception would be clinics that only administer drugs to induce an abortion.

The bill faces a preliminary vote Monday in the House and could be up for final passage by Tuesday. It would then go to the Senate, where similar bills are pending.

Maggie Leigh Groff, vice president for external affairs for Planned Parenthood, Southeastern Pennsylvania, said Baker's bill could regulate many safety-conscious clinics right out of business with costly fire, safety, and staffing regulations on top of those already required by state law.

"The grand jurors wanted to deal with ways to prevent something as horrible as what happened in the Gosnell clinic," said Groff. "But I do not believe they wanted to impede access to abortion facilities or in any way support that these facilities close."

Some critics see Baker's bill as part of efforts playing out nationally to limit abortion access. Bills banning abortion are pending in 19 states; bills to ban or limit abortion coverage under the new federal health-care law are pending in 21, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the issue.

Baker said safety was his bill's goal. "I think women deserve to have a higher level of care and safety if they are going to have an abortion," he said. "Do the naysayers?"

Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934

or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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