While much of the national abortion debate has focused on late-term abortions, pro-life forces are scoring major victories with new laws and regulations that in effect would force many — if not all — abortion clinics in a state to shut down.
This battle over clinic regulations shifted into high gear in Texas on Monday as state lawmakers moved closer to passing a bill that advocates on both sides say would force all but a handful of the state's 67 abortion providers to close.
In a report released Monday, the Guttmacher Institute said that states' efforts to restrict abortion — including clinic regulations — were on pace to exceed those enacted in 2012. The institute also reported that there were nearly 3,000 U.S. abortion providers in the early 1990s and fewer than 1,800 providers since 2008.
Abortion rights supporters say regulations, many passed in states where Republicans dominate the legislatures, are not-too-subtle efforts to drive clinics out of business and deny women their rights to abortion, even while allowing abortion to remain nominally legal on the books. Techniques include raising treatment standards clinics must meet, blocking relationships with public hospitals and banning online technology that enables abortion doctors to treat patients in remote locations.
"Extremist politicians" made "a blatant attempt to shutter the Red River Women's Clinic, the sole abortion provider in North Dakota, with a law that would require the clinic's doctors to unnecessarily have admitting privileges at a local hospital," said the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is planning to block the law in state court this summer. Pro-choice activists call these measures targeted restriction of abortion providers (TRAP) laws.
Pro-life groups counter that in the wake of the May murder conviction of abortionist Kermit Gosnell — his inner-city Philadelphia "house of horrors" clinic operated for years under lax state rules and oversight — it is imperative that state officials step up their oversight of the abortion industry and leading practitioners such as Planned Parenthood.
"The taxpayer-funded abortion Goliath, Planned Parenthood, is trying to take over with its extreme agenda that is out of touch with Texas — and American — values. We are in Austin to tell them the eyes of Texas, and America, are upon you. You won't get away with subverting the democratic process to protect Gosnells in Texas — or anywhere," Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said Monday.
Every U.S. state still has at least one abortion provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute, but in 87 percent of U.S. counties, there are no doctors, hospitals or clinics that offer abortion services. Lone clinics in Mississippi and North Dakota are fighting to survive TRAP laws, pro-choice advocates say.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, signed a bill that included a provision blocking public hospitals from entering into written agreements to accept emergency patients from ambulatory surgical centers that perform abortions. The measure means that Ohio abortion clinics must enter into agreements with private hospitals to be licensed.
Also, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed legislation requiring each abortion doctor to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and their Wisconsin partners filed a lawsuit against that law, saying the measure would in practice close two of the state's four abortion clinics.
Battle in Texas
In Texas, where a bitter clash over abortion-restricting legislation has garnered national attention in recent weeks, a state Senate panel heard testimony Monday about a bill that would set new restrictions on abortion clinics and outlaw abortions after 20 weeks into a pregnancy.
If enacted, the legislation would require abortions to be performed at ambulatory surgical centers. This likely would reduce the state's estimated 67 abortion facilities to a handful in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, said advocates on both sides of the abortion issue.
In addition, all Texas abortionists would have to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles, to ensure a patient's swift emergency care if needed. Opponents said that is tantamount to ending abortion because many Texas hospitals will not grant such privileges to abortion doctors.
Several witnesses told the state Senate Committee on Health and Human Services on Monday that if the restrictions pass, illegal abortionists will fill the vacuum.
Last month, thousands of advocates gathered at the state Capitol in Austin to support or protest the bill. Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis famously filibustered the bill for some 11 hours June 26 to derail the measure as a legislative special session expired.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers into a special session this week. He expects votes on these measures.
New state laws
In its Monday report, the Guttmacher Institute said that as of June, seven states require abortionists to have admitting privileges at local hospitals — a move that gives hospitals "veto power" over abortion clinics' abilities to provide services. In two of the seven states, however, the laws have not come into effect and another two are tied up in court challenges, institute analysts said.
Other new laws require abortion clinics to meet standards of ambulatory surgical centers. Opponents said this is unfair to abortion clinics because they do not offer a wide range of surgical procedures and in some cases offer only chemical abortions.
Lawmakers in states including Alabama, Indiana and Virginia said their actions were needed to ensure the safety of women seeking abortions.
By midyear, states have adopted 43 provisions of all kinds that limit abortion, according to the Guttmacher survey. This was "as many as were enacted in all of 2012," it noted.
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