State Health Laws Create Arena for Abortion Battle


A growing drive in state legislatures to toughen health safety laws applied to abortion clinics has sparked a new round of battles over how far state officials can go in regulating the procedure.

Even after a federal judge last month struck down a 1996 South Carolina law that required abortion clinics to adhere to a detailed series of regulations, at least 10 other state legislatures, including California’s, have passed or are debating similar efforts to toughen standards.

Attempting to entangle abortion providers in a costly web of procedures has been a time-worn tactic among opponents since before the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. The latest push for requirements--which include everything from toughened pest control standards to widening doors--appears to have a new emphasis among abortion foes who in recent years have focused on more emotional issues, such as parental notification and late-term abortions.


Last year, the Kentucky Legislature mandated minimum health standards for all abortion procedures. South Dakota followed by subjecting clinics to periodic inspections.

A New Reality

In recent weeks, lawmakers in Oklahoma, Alabama, Indiana, Virginia, Arizona, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi have debated toughened safety statutes. So has the California Senate, which is mulling a bill that would force clinics to seek relicensing every two years, bolster their training and undergo inspections. Karen Raschke of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, a pro-abortion rights legal group whose attorneys waged the court case against South Carolina’s abortion law, said the effort is not expected to pass.

Some abortion foes are reluctant to press the case for toughening standards in clinics because they think “there’s no such thing as a safe abortion,” said Mary Balch, the National Right to Life Committee’s director of state legislation.

But a few abortion-rights foes, as well as supporters, suggest that the attempts to change health regulations reflect a new sense of reality on both sides.

“In the name of protecting a constitutional right, states have been under-regulating abortion,” said Helen Alvare, director of planning for the Pro-Life Secretariat of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. “It’s really an outrage how much states could do and how little they’ve done.”

The new emphasis on abortion safety, Alvare said, may reflect a realization that “abortion is not going away any time soon.” But she also cited grisly incidents, such as an abortion patient’s death in Arizona and health and sanitation “horror stories” in other states, including fetuses disposed of in garbage cans.


Limited Acceptance

In Louisiana last month, Gov. Mike Foster ordered state health authorities to inspect 11 abortion clinics after a Baton Rouge television station reported unsanitary conditions in a local clinic. Inspectors found no violations. But a lawsuit filed against the state on behalf of the Baton Rouge clinic led to a federal judge’s decision last week to suspend the inspections because they appeared to violate constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure.

Despite the hardened lines over safety standards, even some abortion providers have begun to quietly acknowledge that not all requirements are burdensome.

In Columbia, S.C., a Planned Parenthood clinic is testing its 30 staffers for tuberculosis--even though the 3-year-old state regulation that mandated the tests was delayed by a lawsuit and finally killed last month when a federal judge declared the abortion clinic requirements unconstitutional.

“It’s something we should have been doing but weren’t,” said Jane Emerson, the clinic’s director.

Still, the swiftness with which abortion-rights defenders mounted lawsuits in South Carolina and Louisiana signals the likelihood of protracted court action whenever states tighten clinic safety standards.

“Wherever you see legislation now, Raschke said, “you can pretty much expect to see litigation down the road.”