ACLU, Planned Parenthood sue over new abortion clinic regulations

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A capitol police officer asks anti-abortion protesters to no interfere with a Planned Parenthood rally against abortion related bills on the steps of the Alabama State House in Montgomery on Tuesday, April 2, 2013.(Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser)

A capitol police officer asks anti-abortion protesters to no interfere with a Planned Parenthood rally against abortion related bills on the steps of the Alabama State House in Montgomery on Tuesday, April 2, 2013.(Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser)

The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood Tuesday filed a suit in federal court Tuesday, challenging a newly-enacted law that, among other provisions, requires physicians at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

The suit, filed in the U.S. Middle District Court in Montgomery, says the admitting privileges provision is “medically unnecessary” and aimed at shutting down the state’s five abortion providers. Planned Parenthood operates clinics that provide abortion services in Birmingham and Mobile. Reproductive Health Services, which provides abortion services in Montgomery, is also a plaintiff.

“By making Plaintiffs’ clinic licenses contingent on their physicians obtaining staff privileges at local hospitals, Alabama has unconstitutionally delegated standardless and unreviewable licensing authority to private parties – the hospitals – in violation of Plaintiffs’ due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment,” the suit says.

Mississippi passed a similar law in 2012; it is currently being challenged in federal court. Abortion rights activists say the law would shut down that state’s only abortion clinic. The suit says that if Alabama’s law goes into effect, abortions would be harder to obtain.

“Women in Montgomery, Birmingham, and all points south would be forced to travel at least 100 miles, and some more than 200 miles – and most women must make that trip two times (the first for counseling and then a second visit, at least 24 hours later, for the abortion) – to obtain an abortion in the state,” the suit says.

The provision was part of a far-reaching abortion clinic regulation bill approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Robert Bentley. Among other provisions, the bill says only doctors may dispense abortion-inducing drugs, and requires clinics to be built up to ambulatory clinic standards.

“These laws are part of a nationwide plan to go state by state and make it impossible for a woman to have an abortion,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, R-Indian Springs. McClurkin did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, said he believed the law would ensure a “safe and healthy environment” for those seeking an abortion. If something did go wrong, Beason said, the admitting privilege requirement would ensure the doctor performing the abortion could explain what went wrong.

“The best ways to ensure that person stands a good chance of being there is that admitting privilege,” he said. “To me it makes sense that the doctor who performed these procedures be around.”

Opponents of the law safe abortion is a safe procedure; in the suit, the plaintiffs say most complications are managed within the clinic, and most of those that occur outside can be addressed through a phone call or follow-up visit. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 12 women died from abortion-related complications in 2008, in a year when 825,564 such procedures were performed.

Dr. Anne Davis, consulting director for Physicians for Reproductive Health, said on the conference call that admitting privileges were generally reserved for physicians who have patients “with a regular need for in-patient care.” If a patient at a clinic was admitted to the hospital, a physician trained in another specialty would likely be the one to initiate care.

“It doesn’t make sense for the same (physician) to start one type of care and then continue a different type of care,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense, medically.”

The admitting privileges requirement is scheduled to go into effect on July 1. The plaintiffs are not challenging the ambulatory clinic requirements; at hearings on the bill last spring, opponents said those provisions would be impossible to meet in their current locations, requiring them to move, build new facilities or shut down.

The law requires clinics to submit plans showing compliance with the requirements “not later than 180 days” after the bill goes into effect. Staci Fox, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeast, said they were waiting to see the regulations on that portion of the law, currently under development by the Alabama Department of Public Health.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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