Pa. clinics brace for new standards for abortions

AP News
Posted: Dec 21, 2011 1:01 PM
Pa. clinics brace for new standards for abortions

Operators of women's health clinics that perform abortions in Pennsylvania are bracing for new regulations that they say could mean expensive facility expansions and staff additions.

The requirements are in a bill that Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign this week following a bitter fight in the state Legislature over the regulation of abortion providers. The debate was spurred by a case in which prosecutors say newborn babies were routinely killed in illegal, late-term abortions performed inside a filthy, now-shuttered West Philadelphia clinic that employed workers who weren't properly trained.

In the end, the Republican-controlled Legislature handily passed a bill supported by Corbett that would place Pennsylvania abortion clinics under the same standards as freestanding ambulatory surgical centers.

Clinic operators say they are worried about how they will absorb the costs to comply. Enforcement will fall to the state Department of Health, which could also choose to waive some or all of the requirements, but there isn't a clinic in Pennsylvania that currently complies with the tougher regulations, clinic operators said.

"We don't know how the department is going to respond to these, but if they don't (waive the regulations), what's going to happen to these facilities?" questioned Jennifer Boulanger, executive director of the Allentown Women's Center.

Depending on what the department decides, the regulations could require wider hallways and elevator shafts, bigger surgical rooms, more sinks, changes to the ventilation system and a full-time staff nurse, among other things, clinic operators said. Those changes will do nothing to improve patient health and safety, and paying for them could force the clinics to charge low-income women more for their services, clinic officials said.

The measure would take effect about six months after it is signed into law.

One option for the 20-some freestanding clinics in Pennsylvania that perform abortions is to stop providing the service.

Kim Custer, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northeast and Mid-Pennsylvania, which operates clinics in Reading, Allentown and Harrisburg that perform abortions, said more than 95 percent of what the clinics do involve services besides abortions, such as cancer screening, gynecological exams, birth control and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

But clinic operators, who note that they are already subject to regulations and unannounced inspections, said they are committed to finding a way to continue providing abortions.

Rebecca Cavanaugh, vice president for public affairs of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, said the organization received one architect's opinion that it would have to move a Pittsburgh clinic out of its current building to another one that has a parking lot.

"Right now we are in a stage of kind of waiting to see what will happen," Cavanaugh said.

Suellen Craig, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central Pennsylvania, said that enforcement of the toughest regulations by the state could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs for an organization with a $3 million budget to run five clinics, one of which provides abortions.

Boulanger, of the Allentown Women's Center, said it would be difficult to make the changes in six months, not to mention while remaining open.

"If we shut down for a week, we lose the ability to sustain ourselves long-term," Boulanger said. "If we shut down for a month, forget it."

Proponents of the bill that passed last week say it will help protect the health and safety of women seeking an abortion, but opponents said it is a back-door attempt to outlaw abortion. Some abortion-rights supporters in the Legislature had pressed for a different approach, writing a bill designed to strengthen licensing standards and inspection requirements for abortion clinics.

Prosecutors say the Women's Medical Society in West Philadelphia was a "house of horrors." The operator, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, has been charged with murder in the deaths of seven babies and one patient, as well as drug conspiracy and distribution charges in connection with what authorities say are thousands of illegal prescriptions he wrote for painkillers and sedatives.

Federal drug and FBI agents raided the clinic in February 2010, and reported finding deplorable and unsanitary conditions, including fetal parts in jars. That led to an investigation in which authorities accused Gosnell of routinely performing illegal late-term abortions and said some viable babies were killed by having their spinal cords severed with scissors.

Gosnell has said he is innocent.