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December 2, 2013

State lawmakers want greater abortion oversight

HARRISBURG — As doctors who perform abortions in Texas must now get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals in order to practice, a pair of Pennsylvania lawmakers are marshaling support for a similar law.

Though nothing has been formally introduced, state Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria County and Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, are gathering co-sponsors for a bill that Barbin said would mean greater oversight over abortion providers.

Proponents say the measure is intended to protect against dangerous doctors like Kermit Gosnell, who ran a Philadelphia abortion clinic and was convicted this year in connection with the death of a patient as well as multiple counts of providing illegal, late-term abortions.

People on both sides of the abortion debate agree such a law will probably make it more difficult for women to get access to abortions in a state where all clinics are already congregated in metropolitan areas.

“We already passed one law in response to Gosnell,” said Barbin, referring to a bill requiring health inspections for abortion clinics. “Can you get the momentum to get it on the agenda for January or February? We can try.”

The Texas law requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of their clinic. The law attracted national attention when state Sen. Wendy Davis tried to thwart it through a filibuster. It was passed in a later session.

Though the Texas law is now being challenged in court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the admitting privilege provision can take effect pending the appeal.

Doctors at abortion clinics rarely have admitting privileges because hospitals only grant those to doctors who regularly send them patients, said Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney with the Women’s Law Project in Pittsburgh.

Pro-choice groups argue that existing arrangements mean nearby hospitals must accept patients who suffer from complications following abortions, regardless of the abortion provider’s status

The most recent data available show that in 2011 there were 36,280 abortions in Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Health. Hospitals reported treating 106 women for complications stemming from those procedures — or about 3 cases per 1,000 abortions, according to Health Department records.

Mike McGonagle, president of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Coalition, has calculated that more than half of the abortions in the state are performed by just a handful of doctors.

“Some of them might be able to get admitting privileges,” he said. “But not all of them will.”

Barbin said that closing clinics or decreasing the number of abortions is not the purpose of the bill. But he notes, “We still have 37,000 abortions in Pennsylvania, and that’s way too many.”

About 70 percent of those abortions are performed in Allegheny County and Philadelphia, even though residents of those areas account for only half of the abortions in the state.

That’s because the distribution of the state’s abortion providers is in the cities: Of the state’s 67 counties, 55 have no abortion provider, according to NARAL, Pro-Choice Pennsylvania.

Frietsche said there is “obviously” a political agenda behind a measure requiring abortion providers to get admitting privileges.

Recently, a pair of congressional committees asked states to spell out what types of regulations are in place to protect the interests of women and unborn babies. Pennsylvania’s answer ran 1,257 pages, Frietsche said.

“The Pennsylvania Legislature has been diligent about creating barriers,” Frietsche said.

The next battle line will likely be over the question of viability. Since the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, abortion has been legal up to 24 weeks, the point in pregnancy at which a fetus is considered capable of surviving outside the womb.

As neonatal care has advanced, pro-life advocates have begun to challenge the six-month standard. In Texas, lawmakers have tried to move the legal limit for abortion to 20 weeks.

The courts have not yet ruled on that question. Barbin said if appeals court judges determine the 20-week limit is appropriate, lawmakers in Pennsylvania will likely seek to adopt the 5-month standard, as well.

Barbin compared the struggle to the fight to end slavery in the United States. Human rights of slaves were repeatedly found to be less important than the property rights of slave owners, he said. In the issue of abortion, the right to life of babies is considered less important than the rights of their mothers.

“One (right) is not any greater than the other,” Barbin said. “There is no difference between an unborn child and 1-year-old child,” Barbin said.

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