Critics say more expensive regulations are intended to drive Alabama abortion clinics out of existence
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Feb 03, 2013 | 7697 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — State Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R-Indian Springs, says her latest bill is meant to regulate Alabama’s abortion clinics like any other doctor’s office.

But if every abortion clinic in the state shut down, McClurkin wouldn’t mind.

“If it were left solely up to me, I would close them,” McClurkin said. “But while they exist, I think women should have care that is safe.”

McClurkin is a sponsor of House Bill 57, a 14-page bill that would impose a number of new restrictions on clinics — from a requirement to file new fire safety plans to a rule that clinics must ask clients under the age of 16 to provide the name of the unborn child’s father.

Supporters of the bill say they’re just trying to make abortion clinics abide by the same safety rules as other medical facilities. Critics say it’s just one part of a long-term strategy to regulate abortion clinics out of existence.

“This isn’t about women’s health,” said Pamela Watters, a volunteer at the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives, a clinic in Huntsville. “It’s the anti-abortion faction that put this up.”

A trap?

Watters spends much of her time on the front lines of the abortion debate as most Americans know it.

At the Huntsville clinic, anti-abortion protesters line up on the sidewalk every Wednesday and Saturday, when abortions are being performed. Watters, a Huntsville artist, organizes security for the clinic, providing escorts to help women get into and out of the building. She’s also the person clinic staff refer the news media to for questions.

“It makes me mad to see women being harassed,” she said.

But Watters says there’s another, less well-known battle going on between abortion-rights and anti-abortion groups — a fight in state legislatures across the country. Rather than moving to ban abortion outright, she said, legislatures are heaping regulations on clinics, supposedly to make abortions safer, but really to smother them in red tape.

“We call it TRAP — targeted regulation of abortion providers,” she said.

Watters said TRAP legislation is the main reason Mississippi now has only one still-operating abortion clinic. It may soon have none. Mississippi passed a law last year that required clinics to hire only abortion doctors who have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The Jackson Women’s Health Organization wasn’t able to get those privileges for its doctors, abortion rights advocates say, partly because the clinic employs doctors who travel to the clinic from out of town.

According to the Associated Press, the clinic received notice last month that Mississippi intends to revoke its license.

McClurkin’s bill, HB57, contains wording similar to the Mississippi law. Alabama already requires that clinics have a physician with admitting privileges on staff or under contract, but the HB57 would require that a doctor with local admitting privileges be present at the clinic when an abortion is performed. It would also establish felony charges for clinic operators who don’t comply with the new rules.

Somebody who’s accountable’

The Star’s attempts last week to reach Diane Derzis, owner of the Mississippi clinic, were unsuccessful.

Derzis is also former owner of New Woman All Women clinic in Birmingham. That clinic is perhaps best known as the site where, in 1998, right-wing terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph planted a bomb that killed a clinic security guard and seriously injured a staff member.

New Woman All Women stopped performing abortions in May of last year, after a state investigation found that two patients there were given an overdose of a drug and were sent to the hospital by ambulance. The clinic lost its license, but remains open under new ownership without the ability to perform abortions.

The loss of license at New Woman leaves the state with five abortion clinics, state records show. In 2005, there were 13 clinics, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies abortion.

James Henderson, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, thinks the New Woman incident is a good example of why abortion clinics need more regulation.

“People don’t really understand abortion and its dangers, emotionally, medically and physically,” he said.

Henderson is often on the front lines of the abortion battle himself, protesting at the Huntsville clinic where Pamela Watters volunteers as an escort.

Henderson said he wants abortion clinics to be regulated just like any other clinic that performs surgery. The admitting-privileges requirement, he said, is something you’d expect at any such clinic.

“The question is what’s good medicine,” he said. “Do you want somebody who’s accountable to the patient, who understands them — or do you want somebody who’s just on call?”

‘Worst outcomes’>

Watters said the Huntsville clinic has performed 15,000 abortions since 2001, and has had only six significant complications. According to the Guttmacher Institute, fewer than three patients of every 1,000 nationwide had complications that required hospitalization.

Still, McClurkin believes that, as a form of surgery, abortion should be regulated like any other.

“That’s one of the biggest surgeries you can do,” she said. “For them to not have the same credentials as other clinics isn’t appropriate.”

Currently, abortion clinics are regulated by the Alabama Department of Public Health, based on rules specific to those clinics. Abortion rights advocates said McClurkin’s bill would in effect reclassify abortion clinics as ambulatory surgery centers, a classification for centers that do outpatient surgeries like face-lifts or colonoscopies. Watters said the cost to comply with those rules could be more than a million dollars at the Huntsville clinic alone.

Nikema Williams-Small, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, said the organization was still trying to assess the impact HB57 would have on its two clinics in Alabama. She said that if Alabama legislators really had women’s health at heart, they’d work with Planned Parenthood on issues such as contraception and women’s health care access.

“Alabama has some of the worst outcomes in the nation in women’s health,” she said. “They should be working with us to improve health care.”

Reluctance

Despite GOP supermajorities in both houses, the Alabama State Legislature has shown little taste for banning abortion outright. Personhood bills, which would declare a fetus to be a person with full human rights, have failed twice since 2010.

Personhood “has the potential to make sweeping changes to our culture,” said Sam McClure, a Montgomery adoption attorney who is a member of Personhood Alabama, the group that backed those bills. McClure became the de facto in-state spokesman for the group when its leader, Ben DuPre, joined the staff of Chief Justice Roy Moore.

McClure said the personhood bill failed in part because life at conception meant that embyros created in fertility clinics had rights. McClure was comfortable with that, but not every pro-life activist was.

McClure said activists would continue to pursue personhood legislation, but he supported further clinic regulation as well, if only because it was more likely to pass.

“You’ve got the incrementalist strategy and you’ve got the absolutist strategy,” he said. “If there’s a burning building and you can only get the people out of the bottom floor, that might be better than waiting until you can save the whole building.”

But supporters of HB57 leave little doubt that they want to save the whole building, eventually.

“Abortion clinics operate in opposition to God’s law,” said Henderson, of the Christian Coalition. “They destroy unborn children and they’re not medical clinics by any definition.”

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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