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Pa. clinics to survive new standards for abortions

By Marc Levy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 18 2012 3:04 p.m. MDT

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Nearly all of the state's abortion clinics are expected to remain open under a tougher law that raises surgical standards as a response to grotesque conditions discovered at a Philadelphia clinic two years ago, state officials said Monday.

The law takes effect Tuesday, six months after it was enacted over the protests of abortion rights proponents as an unnecessary law written by opponents as a stealth effort to shut down clinics. It's unclear how many clinics will have to forgo more complicated procedures to meet the standards of the new law, and the Department of Health had no answer to the question.

Proponents of the new law say it will help protect the health and safety of women seeking abortions by putting abortion clinics under the same standards as outpatient surgical centers. In a statement, Health Secretary Eli Avila called the law "a public health victory."

Of the 22 clinics that had been licensed under the previous law, just one, in the Pittsburgh area, will stop performing the procedure, state officials said. Two clinics connected to medical centers at the University of Pittsburgh or the University of Pennsylvania will continue to operate under a hospital license, which allows them to perform surgical abortions that require anesthesia.

Five clinics will be allowed to perform only early-term abortions that use prescribed medication. Five will have three months to seek accreditation by the American Association for the Accreditation of Ambulatory Surgical Facilities to perform abortions that require local anesthesia only.

Eight will have six months to meet state standards to perform abortions that require general anesthesia, under which the patient is not fully conscious. Another, Hillcrest Women's Medical Center in Harrisburg, has received a license to use local anesthesia, the health department said.

Clinic operators note that they were already subject to regulations and unannounced inspections.

Complying with the new law has forced many of the clinics to renovate their buildings, buy new equipment and train their staffs for what Planned Parenthood of Central Pennsylvania president Suellen Craig said are regulations that are unnecessary to provide safe abortions.

Still, she said she felt the Department of Health had treated her organization fairly and the process has been tough for both.

"We've obviously had a lot of work to do to meet the requirements," Craig said. "That's been disruptive because it's taken us a lot of time and money to make sure that we're in compliance."

Planned Parenthood said its eight abortion clinics around the state will remain open and providing the same services as before.

"Even in the face of burdensome, medically unnecessary regulations, we will do what it takes to be there for the women counting on us," the organization said.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, an abortion rights opponent, signed the bill on Dec. 22. The bill passed both legislative chambers with solid majorities, 32-18 in the Senate and 151-44 in the House.

Abortion rights supporters in the Legislature had pressed for a different approach, writing a bill designed to strengthen licensing standards and inspection requirements.

The bitter debate was spurred by a case in which law enforcement officials called a clinic a "house of horrors." Inside the now-shuttered Women's Medical Society in West Philadelphia, newborn babies were routinely killed in illegal, late-term abortions performed by workers who weren't properly trained, prosecutors say.

The operator, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, was charged last year with murder in the deaths of seven babies and one patient and with 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.

The health department dropped its policy of annual inspections in the mid-1990s under Gov. Tom Ridge, who supported abortion rights, according to a grand jury report last year. In 2010, then-Gov. Ed Rendell ordered inspections after news of the clinic raid emerged.

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