No debate on Pennsylvania abortion bills' effects

Brad Bumsted
| Sunday, June 19, 2011

HARRISBURG — Anti-abortion and abortion rights advocates don't often agree. But they do on what will be the effects of bills approved by the state House and Senate to place tighter restrictions on abortion clinics in the aftermath of what prosecutors called a "house of horrors" at a Philadelphia clinic.

There are differences to be sure in H.B. 574, approved by the House in May, and S.B. 732, which won Senate approval on Tuesday. As for the standards imposed on clinics, they are fundamentally the same even though the House bill at first blush seems to go a bit further, both sides say.

Anti-abortion lobbyists like both bills. Abortion rights advocates oppose them.

"They're both horrible," said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, an abortion rights supporter.

"Either one is a great improvement," said Charlene Bashore, legislative director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. The federation isn't endorsing one over the other.

"In my judgment, both would infringe women's constitutional rights, because both would create substantial obstacles to abortion care and both would harm women's health," said Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney for the Women's Law Project in Pittsburgh.

The impetus for the legislation was a Philadelphia grand jury report released in January alleging horrific abuses at a West Philadelphia clinic run by Dr. Kermit Gosnell.

He and three aides face murder charges for allegedly killing viable babies born alive. Gosnell also is charged with murder in the death of a female patient.

According to the Philadelphia DA's office, Gosnell "staffed his decrepit and unsanitary clinic with unlicensed personnel, let them practice medicine on unsuspecting patients, unsupervised, and directed them to heavily drug patients" when Gosnell was absent. The Department of State, which licenses doctors, ignored complaints about the clinic, and the state Department of Health stopped inspecting the clinic in 1993, the grand jury said.

Allegations that Gosnell and his assistants snipped babies' spines with scissors and flushed them down toilets stunned lawmakers at hearings earlier this year. The legislation is an outgrowth of the hearings.

The Senate bill holds clinics to the same standards as ambulatory surgical clinics for abortions performed after nine weeks of pregnancy. The House bill would hold all clinics to the same surgical standards, with no exceptions based on gestational stage.

The vast majority of abortions performed after nine weeks are surgical procedures, advocates and opponents say. Most abortions up to nine weeks of pregnancy are "pharmaceutical abortions," in which a woman is administered medicine.

The House bill would cover some surgical abortions that occur before nine weeks of pregnancy.

It's not clear how the Legislature will resolve differences and whether that will occur before the June 30 recess.

Figures from the state Department of Health for 2009 show 22,226, or 60 percent, of 37,284 abortions performed in Pennsylvania occurred at eight weeks or less of pregnancy and 6,783 at nine to 10 weeks. That means 78 percent of all abortions in 2009 occurred at 10 weeks or less. The figures don't break out abortions for nine weeks or less.

The "common denominator" in both bills is applying surgical standards to the state's abortion clinics, Bashore said.

"We are talking about this applying only to those clinics that provide 'surgical abortions,' whereby complications from surgery could develop, and we are reasonably trying to ensure that the death of women and late-term live children and other horrors within the Gosnell clinic do not happen again," said Rep. Matthew Baker, R-Tioga County, sponsor of the House bill.

Abortion rights groups oppose both bills as a threat to women's health and lessening their choices. They claim the expenses of upgrading to surgical units will force some clinics to close.

Both bills "have the same intent and take the same approach at limiting access to abortion facilities," Frankel said.

"Sure, the Senate bill has the nine-week provision, but the fact of the matter is that many women don't know they're pregnant until at least nine weeks into it," Frankel added.

"Both of these bills will drive more women to the unsafe, back-alley clinics," he said. "I don't perceive any difference between them."

Additional Information:

By the numbers

Number of county residents who received abortions in 2009:

• Allegheny, 4,237

• Westmoreland, 539

• Washington, 348

• Beaver, 302

• Butler, 206

• Fayette, 170

• Indiana, 122

• Armstrong, 63

• Greene, 53

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health

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