Karen Heller: Abortion-clinic bills about an agenda, not health

Posted: June 19, 2011

One in three women has an abortion before age 45. Radically altering clinic regulations, as two state bills that have passed in their respective chambers propose to do, will not affect that ratio.

"We're going to have a health crisis if this happens," says Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania CEO Dayle Steinberg. "Any policies that create barriers to abortion access don't decrease the incidence of abortions. They decrease the incidence of safe abortions."

As State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) said of the bills: "They pretty much suck."

Given the antiabortion stance of Gov. Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature, a bill is likely to be signed into law, if not in the coming weeks, then this fall.

"What has happened is what most of us feared," Hughes says. "They would take the Gosnell situation, which was a total aberration, and then just use it to further whatever agenda."

With January's grand jury report of Kermit Gosnell, charged with the deaths of seven babies and a woman who died during an abortion at his West Philadelphia clinic, the state Department of Health began rigorous, unannounced inspections of state abortion providers. Astonishingly, Gosnell's facility hadn't been inspected since April 1993. Sen. Pat Vance (R., Cumberland), the only registered nurse in the legislature, proposed a bipartisan bill to ensure the enforcement of regulations so such atrocities never occur again.

But Sen. Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery) attached an amendment mirroring the House's stringent bill, proposed by Rep. Matt Baker (R., Bradford), which would require abortion clinics to meet the exacting standards of ambulatory surgical centers (ASC): an elevator, wide halls for gurneys, a full nursing staff, specific flooring and ventilation systems. Yet abortions are not invasive surgery, and most patients leave an hour after the procedure.

Pennsylvania has 20 freestanding abortion clinics, most in our region. Not one clinic would meet the new standards.

To reach compliance, facilities' costs would rise - experts estimate by as much as $1 million - or they would have to stop performing abortions. Most procedures would then be performed at hospitals, where fees are much higher. Poorer patients without insurance would not be able to afford them.

In proposing his legislation, Baker argued, "This shouldn't be about whether you are pro-life or pro-choice."

That's nonsense. In a widely circulated 2007 memo, James Bopp Jr., general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, proposed such a statute "to advance the pro-life cause." He noted, "While bans on the core abortion right at the state level are currently both useless and potentially dangerous, there are many helpful things that states can do," including requiring clinics to meet "certain standards, such as those required for other ambulatory surgical care facilities."

Vance remains unhappy that her original bill, which she intended to be about women's health and safety, became a battleground over abortion. "A lot of poor women will be deprived of the opportunity to have good health care," she says. "Whether you like abortion or not, it's still legal. I feel sad for a lot of poor women who will be deprived."

In Mississippi and Texas, where clinics are legally required to meet ASC standards, according to an American Journal of Public Health 2009 report, the number of safe and legal abortions has dramatically decreased despite persistent need.

But Pennsylvania isn't Mississippi or Texas. It's long been moderate, a test state for abortion rights, which has gradually seen access to services erode. In 2008, 95 percent of all abortions were performed in just seven counties.

The bills "serve no useful purpose other than to inflict hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs," argues Sherry Blumenthal, president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "Pennsylvania already has some of the strictest abortion laws in the nation. If these regulations further restrict access by forcing all abortions into limited hospitals, more patients will seek illegal, unsafe procedures from unprincipled providers."

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams also dislikes the House bill. "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," he argues. Baker's bill "goes beyond the scope" of the report, Williams says.

"Proposing a bill with such extreme consequences for so many women without bothering to hold a public hearing on the matter is a disgrace," says the Women's Law Project's Susan Frietsche. "If providers had to upgrade to an ambulatory surgical center, it would not make women any safer."

Gosnell's clinic operated in Hughes' district, and the senator has been a leading advocate for tougher standards and inspections. "We have a different level of oversight going on, and have solved a significant portion of the problem." Of the proposed bills, he says, "This is not the enlightened community I expected, but a throwback to some darker days in Pennsylvania."

These bills are not about protecting women's health. They are about restricting access to a legal procedure. Planned Parenthood's Steinberg says, "the ultimate goal is to shut abortion clinics down by whatever means possible." In no way should either bill become law.

Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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