Arizona abortion clinic search being questioned

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PHOENIX (AP) - A bill in the Arizona Legislature to allow surprise inspections of abortion clinics has been described by supporters as a vital tool for health inspectors, who now must get a warrant to make unannounced searches of abortion providers.

But the Arizona Department of Health Services has sought only one abortion clinic search warrant in the past four years - and it happened just days before the bill was heard in the House of Representatives last month. The warrant was in response to a low-priority report filed nearly 11 months ago by Planned Parenthood of Arizona, and critics believe the search was purely political to help sell the proposal to lawmakers.

“It is very clear that it was not a situation which merited getting a warrant,” Planned Parenthood of Arizona President Bryan Howard said. “It would seem that the only reason that warrant was sought was that so that the Department of Health could testify three days later about going through the warrant process. So really it was a trumped-up situation.”

Health Services denies that there is any link between the legislation and the search. Spokeswoman Laura Oxley said the agency originally planned to obtain a warrant in November, but it was delayed, in part to ensure that a team of inspectors was available to do the search.

“This is the first administrative search warrant we’ve served, and we carefully worked through the process,” Oxley said. That included working with the attorney general’s office and a local court, and coordinating with a local police agency to serve the warrant.

The search warrant bill is being pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, the conservative group that wrote a now-vetoed religious freedom bill that angered gays, civil rights proponents and the business community. President Cathi Herrod said it is needed to protect women from rogue doctors like Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia physician found guilty last year of murder in the deaths of three babies prosecutors said were delivered alive and killed.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is sponsoring the legislation, which passed the House last week and is set for its first Senate committee hearing this week. She has said repeatedly that abortion clinics should be subject to the same unannounced inspections without a warrant that all other medical facilities in Arizona can face.

“This is not a pro-life versus pro-choice issue,” Lesko said. “This is about the healthiness of a facility where a woman goes to get a procedure done.”

Democrats say the bill is a smoke screen and that the snap inspections would lead to harassment of women seeking abortion services.

The health department has received just five complaints concerning abortion clinic safety in the past three years, and the recent case at Planned Parenthood was the only time a warrant was carried out. It was in response to a report submitted by Planned Parenthood last year about a complication that a patient experienced.

Oxley said the report was considered a low priority but worthy of eventual follow-up. But the warrant, issued Feb. 7 and executed Feb. 10, said “it was imperative” that the agency be given unannounced and immediate access to Planned Parenthood’s Glendale clinic for a search.

During the search, Health Services staff hauled off records of policies, two patients, compliance audits and a corrective action plan dated May 8, 2013.

Oxley said the investigation remains open, and no citations or “notices of deficiencies” have been issued.

The restrictions on abortion clinics are in place as part of a 2010 settlement of a federal lawsuit brought after earlier state legislation. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found snap inspections at the state’s abortion clinics are illegal because women’s privacy rights are particularly at risk.

But the Center for Arizona Policy argues circumstances have changed and the unannounced inspections could be upheld as constitutional. House Republicans who voted 34-22 for the bill last week embraced that argument, with just one Republican, Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, breaking ranks.

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