A new tactic is proving one of the most effective in years for pro-life groups trying to reduce the number of abortions in America.
Laws and regulations setting higher standards and operating controls for clinics have forced many abortion providers to shut down in Texas and other states, greatly reducing the availability of abortions in large parts of the country.
A recent spate of clinic closings is drawing cheers from pro-life advocates, who see the shutdowns as proof that stricter standards closer to those that govern hospitals and other health care facilities, plus pro-life outreach efforts, are working.
Pro-choice supporters counter that they will have their day in court and that judges eventually will strike down these laws as a backdoor way to undercut rights guaranteed by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
In Texas, a total of 19 clinics — including two this month — have closed after lawmakers passed a series of abortion-regulating bills, including one that requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
Mississippi’s hospital privileges law has led that state’s only abortion clinic to go to court to stay open. The Jackson Women’s Health Organization has won at the District Court level but faces the state again in a federal appellate court hearing this spring.
In Florida, a well-established Tallahassee clinic has decided to close its doors this month for unknown reasons. In Alabama, the last two abortion clinics in Birmingham, the state’s largest city, are not operating.
It looks like Birmingham is now “abortion-clinic-free,” said Dana Cody, executive director of Life Legal Defense Foundation, who attributed the apparent closures to new laws, public health enforcement efforts, and prayers and outreach by pro-life sidewalk counselors.
“When abortion clinics are required to adhere to the kind of standards that we expect from any kind of medical facility many of them will shut down. And I think that’s a real indictment of the entire abortion business,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League.
Pro-choice supporters who oppose hospital privileges and other “targeted regulation of abortion providers” are taking their fights to courts and the public square.
“It certainly feels like the women in Alabama are under assault. It really feels oppressive here,” said Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama.
Her office is awaiting a court decision on Alabama’s hospital privilege law. Its clients — three Alabama clinics, including a Planned Parenthood facility in Birmingham that is not in operation — are asking the court to strike down the law. Alabama’s abortion laws “are not about improving health care for women. They are designed to prohibit abortion and overthrow Roe v. Wade,” Ms. Watson said.
That fact that these kinds of laws are popping up all over the country shows “a concerted effort” to hamper abortion rights, said Randall Marshall, legal director of ACLU of Alabama.
NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America are among those decrying a “war on women” because of efforts to put up barriers to legal abortion.
Pro-life leaders say they are watching clinics, including the “closed” ones, even as they rejoice in the cessation of business.
“Every day they stay closed is a good day for Birmingham,” said the Rev. Terry Gensemer, director of the Charismatic Episcopal Church for Life in Birmingham.
The Planned Parenthood facility in Birmingham has been closed since early December — temporarily for a planned remodeling, news reports said. But Mr. Gensemer said he and his allies have not seen construction traffic or apparent work at the facility.
Birmingham’s only other abortion clinic, New Woman, All Women Health Care, has a for-sale sign in front of it, according to pro-life sources including Operation Rescue.
That clinic has been in a battle with Alabama health officials and the courts for several years. Calls to a lawyer who has represented the clinic’s owner, Diane Derzis, in court were not returned. Ms. Derzis also owns the Mississippi clinic.
Alabama has other abortion clinics in Mobile, Montgomery, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa, so women still have abortion options, Mr. Marshall noted.
Activists on both sides are tracking the flurry of pro-life provisions passed since 2011.
The requirement for hospital admitting privileges has been a favorite. Lawmakers say it is needed to ensure that abortion patients can get proper care in case of emergency. Such laws received a boost by a number of cases of malpractice, unsanitary conditions and patient neglect by abortionists — most notoriously, that of Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia.
Opponents say the law is just an attempt to close clinics. They have managed to get the laws enjoined in North Dakota, Wisconsin and Alabama, but not in Texas, where the law is in effect during litigation.
In North Dakota, the state’s one abortion clinic — the Red River Women’s Clinic — has satisfied the law by receiving hospital privileges at Sanford Health and is in settlement talks with the state.
Separately, the North Florida Women’s Health and Counseling Services in Tallahassee is closing at the end of March after more than 30 years. An employee confirmed Friday that the facility is closing by March 31, but did not provide a reason.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 839 abortion clinics were operating in 2011, down from 851 clinics counted in 2008. The number of abortion providers fell 4 percent, from 1,793 in 2008 to 1,720 in 2011, the institute said in January. Its data further showed that while 21 states had five or fewer abortion clinics, every state had at least one abortion provider.
Pro-life Operation Rescue, which also tracks abortion clinics, said in December that there were a total of 759 clinics, with 582 providing surgical abortions and another 177 providing only abortion pills.
“We are on track to see another great year,” Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, said Friday as part of a statement on the latest abortion clinic closings.
“Every time an abortion clinic closes, lives are saved because women have a greater opportunity to seek other means of coping with the challenges they face,” he said.