Crackdown on abortion clinics clears Pa. Senate

Posted: June 14, 2011

HARRISBURG - A controversial bill imposing stricter standards on abortion clinics in Pennsylvania cleared the state Senate Tuesday and now heads to the House, where its fate is uncertain.

By a vote of 38-12, the Senate passed legislation - prompted by a grand jury's report exposing horrific conditions at a Philadelphia abortion clinic - that would increase inspection, space, staffing, and other requirements for the 20 clinics operating throughout the state.

The bill, which changed dramatically since its introduction earlier this year, needs House approval and Gov. Corbett's signature to become law. Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Response from groups on both sides of the abortion debate was swift. Within minutes of the vote, the ACLU of Pennsylvania put out a news release warning that the bill would "cut off access to health care" by driving clinics out of business, while the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation issued a statement praising the Senate for "safeguarding" women's health.

The Senate bill requires clinics performing abortions after nine weeks' pregnancy to be licensed as so-called "ambulatory" surgical facilities like those that offer outpatient knee, eye, and other surgeries. A House-approved version, now before a Senate committee, extends those standards to all clinics performing abortions.

"We will take a look at [the Senate bill] and work with the Senate to see which one to send to the governor," Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, said of the Senate bill.

Miskin declined to predict whether a deal would be reached before the General Assembly breaks for summer recess after the passage of the state budget, which has an oft-missed June 30 deadline. "Obviously the top priority is the budget, but health care is a major issue, too," he said.

Supporters say the bill will ensure that women's health is protected at safer clinics, while opponents say the costs associated with upgrading the clinics will lead to closures and thereby restrict access to a range of sexual health services, especially for lower-income women.

"The public health crisis will not ensue when SB 732 becomes law," Sen. Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery), sponsor of an amendment toughening requirements on clinics, told colleagues. "We have a public health crisis now because we failed to treat abortions like surgical procedures."

He was referring to the grisly discoveries last year at the West Philadelphia clinic run by physician Kermit Gosnell, who is charged with murder in the deaths of seven babies and a woman.

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) whose district was home to Gosnell's now-shuttered clinic, said the proposed new regulations would create an impossible barrier to women's health services. He and nearly every other lawmaker from the city opposed the bill.

"This is not a response to Kermit Gosnell," Hughes said on the Senate floor. "It's an unfortunate attempt to shut down women's access to all kinds of reproductive services."

Sen. Pat Vance, the bill's original sponsor, decried the fact that the state's failure to keep tabs on one clinic operator had reopened the abortion debate.

"Gosnell was a criminal and a terrible, terrible one," said Vance (R., Cumberland) "If the Department of State and Department of Health had done their jobs, there would be no need for this, and we wouldn't be standing here talking about regulations."

The bill has changed since Vance introduced it earlier this year. Her original proposal focused on requiring annual and unannounced inspections by the Department of Health. The grand jury report had said that agency failed to inspect Gosnell's clinic for 17 years.

Last week, amid fierce debate, Mensch succeeded in adding an amendment establishing that clinics performing abortions after nine weeks' pregnancy meet physical and staffing standards for "ambulatory surgical" - or outpatient - facilities.

That would mean hospital-grade elevators, larger operating rooms, registered nurses on duty at all times, and other upgrades - changes that some providers contend are unneeded and prohibitively costly.

On Monday, Vance won back some ground, persuading the Senate to approve her amendment requiring an independent study of the costs of such upgrades.

Sen. Lisa Boscola (D., Lehigh) called it the toughest vote of her 16 years in office. "I feel like I have a gun to my head," she said before voting.

But in the end, Boscola said, she voted "aye" because of the study provision, and the required inspections. She said she hoped the House might strip out regulations she viewed as costly and unneeded.


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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