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Pennsylvania lawmakers pass, consider multiple bills to restrict abortions

| Monday, Jan. 23, 2012

Mary Lou Gartner has been involved in the anti-abortion movement since the Roe v. Wade court decision — almost 40 years ago — but she considers the past year a "breakthrough" in the battle in Pennsylvania over the availability of abortions.

Gartner and about 6,000 abortion opponents from Western Pennsylvania are traveling to Washington to join an estimated 200,000 others Monday for the 39th March For Life rally, held annually to coincide with the Jan. 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

The rally occurs this year in a climate in which state lawmakers have passed or are considering multiple bills to enact restrictions on abortions.

"The climate in Pennsylvania is one of chipping away at women's reproductive rights, little by little, and the speed has picked up tremendously in the past year," said Rebecca Cavanaugh, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. "I highly doubt Roe v. Wade will ever be overturned entirely, so the strategy seems to be to make abortions harder to obtain and afford and strap the entire process with barriers."

House Bill 574, passed last year, toughens requirements on abortion clinics in Pennsylvania. Senate Bill 3 would place abortion-related restrictions on insurance plans available for purchase in the state under the federal health care law coming in 2014. And House Bill 1077, just introduced, would require Pennsylvania women to view and sign for copies of their fetal ultrasound photos before obtaining abortions.

Many in the anti-abortion movement said the changes are a step toward focusing the public on the rights of unborn children. Those who are pro-abortion rights are worried the legislation is chipping away at the availability and affordability of abortion services.

"I have been involved in this movement from the very beginning, and this is the first year that I feel like we're making progress," said Gartner, a board member of the Pittsburgh-based People Concerned for the Unborn Child. "I remember when Roe v. Wade passed, a group of us thought it would be maybe five years, and the courts would overturn it. I can't believe we're still fighting this four decades later."

HB 574 requires the state's 22 free-standing abortion facilities to become licensed as ambulatory surgical facilities and be subject to at least one annual unannounced inspection by the state Department of Health.

Kim Evert, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania, said officials there are not sure yet what the law will mean for abortion providers, but said it seems "pretty clear the intent of the law is to ultimately shut down abortion facilities."

"We will figure out a way to do everything we can to maintain services, but we don't know yet what effect this will have on patients and providers," Evert said.

Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania provides medical services to about 16,000 women a year, with another 18,000 receiving education and family planning support. Abortion is among the services.

The legislation stemmed from a January 2011 grand jury report that accused Dr. Kermit Gosnell of murdering a patient and killing seven late-term babies with a pair of scissors in a filthy Philadelphia abortion clinic. Prosecutors called Gosnell's clinic a "house of horrors" and said untrained employees performed abortions.

The law will require, among other things, dedicated parking spaces, medical grade elevators, extended hallways and larger procedure rooms. In addition, a registered nurse would have to be on staff at all times whether an abortion was being performed or not — one potentially significant cost increase.

The latest figures from the state Department of Health show that 37,284 abortions were performed in Pennsylvania in 2009, down by 3.9 percent from 2008.

In Texas, which has a law similar to HB 574, four ambulatory surgery facilities perform abortions after the 16th week of pregnancy; there were 20 such facilities before the law changed.

Gretchen Cararie of Valencia, spokeswoman for the Butler County chapter of Pennsylvanians for Human Life, said she supported the abortion clinic legislation because she believes it ultimately will benefit women.

"Whether you are for abortion or against it, it's a shame that these clinics have no regulation or oversight, and they need to in order to be safe for all women," Cararie said.

'Back-alley clinics'

Officials from Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and the Downtown-based Women's Law Project worry that passage of SB 3, regarding insurance plans, could push women seeking abortions to low-cost, low-quality providers. The bill has passed through the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee but has not come to the floor for a vote.

The measure, introduced by Sen. Don White, R-Indiana County, addresses abortion coverage under the federal health care law that will establish health insurance exchanges for people to buy coverage. The federal law bans the use of public money for abortions.

The state bill would bar insurance plans in the health care exchange from covering abortions, except to avert the death of the mother or in cases of rape or incest.

Anti-abortion groups say the bill will ensure no public money goes toward abortions.

Cavanaugh said she worries the bill will make abortion services affordable only to the wealthy and will drive poorer women to "back-alley clinics."

"We are plainly headed in that direction if this legislation passes," said Susan Frietsche, staff lawyer with the Downtown-based Women's Law Project, which works to advance women's rights. "This will lead to women taking matters into their own hands or seeking illegal practitioners. The idea that all of this abortion legislation is somehow protecting women's health is just nonsense."

'Cruel and unusual'

HB 1077, known as the Women's Right to Know Act and modeled after a Texas bill that a federal court has upheld, was introduced in the House in October. It calls for a woman to undergo a fetal ultrasound prior to obtaining an abortion and to sign for and receive a copy of the image. The bill was referred to the State House Health Committee, chaired by Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga.

Giving a woman "an ultrasound picture of a fetus they just aborted is pretty cruel and unusual and serves no purpose," Cavanaugh said.

Abortion providers would have to keep a copy of the ultrasound on record for seven years, she said.

Cararie said the legislation simply aims to make sure a woman seeking an abortion is "fully aware" of the choice she is making.

"All this bill is doing is asking a woman to look at the other person involved in this decision," Cararie said. "This is not a knee replacement. This is a human life. And we have worked with women who have had abortions and later regretted it.

"I think all of this legislation ultimately is forcing people to really look at the issue of abortion and understand it. In that way alone, we have made progress."

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