PA House to Vote on Bill Aimed at Regulating Abortion
“We’ve had enough,” the protesters chanted on the sweeping marble staircase of the Capitol rotunda in Harrisburg yesterday, and around the podium, where they chanted in chorus with the speakers. Like a wife disgusted with an unfaithful husband, or a mother who can’t take a wayward son in anymore, the protesters (male and female) tried to drive home to the Pennsylvania Legislature that this was the last straw: they weren’t going to take underhanded legislative attempts to undermine abortion rights anymore.
A bill will come to vote in the state House next week, which will be the Legislature’s first move after the grand jury report that charged West Philadelphia abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell and his accomplices in his clinic with first- and third-degree murder and a slew of other charges. Opponents to the bill, including one of the bill’s original authors who’s now fighting its currently warped form, say it’ll cause clinics to close down and limit women’s access, not only to abortion, but to other services that those clinics offer. And for women who are seeking an abortion, it’ll leave them little recourse but to seek the service elsewhere—wherever they can find it.
In a cover story we wrote about Gosnell, an abortionist whose clinic was raided on suspicion that he was operating an illicit drug ring and was found to be operating a baby murder mill. The grand jury report blamed overall institutional apathy for letting it go on for so long, lambasting a gamut of agencies for oversight on the federal, state and city level, and amongst neighborhood medical facilities, until press coverage resulted in an investigation and shutdown.
The grand jury report reads: “We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color, because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”
This week’s game of political football started with the Senate, where the Public Health and Welfare Committee drafted SB 732, which would set up a certification process (see below for a more detailed rundown of the original provisions of the bill). It passed in the Senate, and then got amended by the House to reflect a bill they had passed about abortion.
Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat from West Philadelphia, served on the committee that drafted the original version. “What has been proposed in Senate Bill 732 puts women in second-class status with respect to their own health care,” he said. His beef is with the amended version, which would put abortion facilities into a category of an outpatient surgery, or “ambulatory surgical facility” (ASF), putting them under laws that would require them to adhere to very strict building codes and state board rules and regulations.
The state representative whose committee amended the bill, Matt Baker (R-Bradford and Tioga counties), said, “This is about patient safety and protecting women from the terrible atrocities that transpired at the Philadelphia [clinic of] Gosnell, who’s been charged with seven murders and numerous counts of infanticide and drug related charges. This bill is really a reflection of a lot of good work that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the grand jury put into it. We were very careful to embody what they were recommending.”
The grand jury report recommends “that the Pennsylvania Department of Health plug the hole it has created for abortion clinics. They should be explicitly regulated as ambulatory surgical facilities, so that they are inspected annually and held to the same standards as all other outpatient procedure centers.”
The bill in its original form tried to do that, but Planned Parenthood President and CEO Dayle Steinberg says the amended version would force very exacting requirements on facilities that perform other services besides abortions. Bringing those facilities up to code would be so expensive, they’d have to shut down. The protesters say the bill is a sneaky way of shutting down abortion clinics, and that it’s very much a political move towards ending abortion in Pennsylvania.
“The fact is, many of these facilities provide much more services than abortion,” Hughes said. “Abortion is a service they provide. No denying that. But all of these facilities do a whole lot more. They are, in many respects, the first entry for all kinds of health care services for women, from cancer to general health care. And from there they’re directed to other health care places. If you talk about closing down these facilities, which is what Senate Bill 732 will do, you create an environment where women have little opportunity to go anywhere else.”
“The doctor [Gosnell] is an aberration,” he added. “There’s no one else doing what he was doing.”
Baker says the rally was “nothing more than a ruse and a Trojan horse to try to defeat the legislation and the intent to protect women from terrible, heinous crimes … It seems to me that Planned Parenthood, which is always saying they’re doing this on behalf of women, don’t seem to support raising the bar in terms of patient safety. What’s wrong with higher standards of care if you’re going to do surgical abortions? Why not have that same standard that applies to ambulatory surgical centers? Why has it been all these years that only abortion clinics are exempt from the same standards? We’re trying to make sure that the instruments are sterile, there’s enough room to operate in a safe and appropriate manner, and that common sense construction standards are complied with.”
“What we’re trying to do is improve patient safety, protect women’s health, and to make sure the horrendous atrocities that transpired in that Philadelphia abortion clinic never happen again,” he added.
The bill will be voted on in the House next week. If it passes—and Baker is confident it will—it has to be approved in the Senate, and then it will be made law.
Here’s the play-by-play of Senate Bill 732:
Original Senate Bill 732:
Defined “abortion” as the standard definition used in Pennsylvania law since 1982.
- Approval required by the department, by filing an application, getting inspected, and then certified
- Certificates would be valid for one year, and facilities must reapply, with an inspection, for the certificate to renew
- Allows random inspections of any certified facility, or a certificate applicant, including all records and employee backgrounds
- Which means the health department would conduct at least one yearly random inspection of any certified abortion facility
- Any report of a patient’s death, compromise of safety, or injury requiring the need of more medical attention must be inspected within three days
- They could (and presumably should) also conduct random or scheduled inspections to investigate complaints, etc.
- Any certificate trading or transfer is strictly verboten, and would constitute fraud
- Any violation that places a patient in danger would result in immediate license revocation, while minor infractions would be dealt with through a plan of correction that would have to be submitted within 10 days of notice
- The bill also sets up a toll-free hotline, office, and website application to submit complaints, with a tracking system, that can be kept anonymous and confidential, with a receipt and outcome report given to the complainant
Amended (current) version, going to the House floor next week:
Defines “abortion” as “any public or private hospital, clinic, center, medical school, medical training institution, physician’s office… or other institution which provides surgical services meant to terminate the clinically diagnosable pregnancy… with knowledge that the termination … will … cause the death of the unborn child.”
- The Health Department would classify abortion facilities as “ambulatory surgical facilities,” or outpatient surgeries, which would basically amend its definition; where in the Health Care Facilities Act, outpatient surgical treatment means “treatment to patients who do not require hospitalization, but who require constant medical supervision following the surgical procedure performed,” not including practices “of private physicians” unless there’s a distinct part of the office used only for surgery regularly.
- This new designation would require any abortion facilities to renovate to comply with the Life Safety Code, which outlines exactly how many millimeters wide a hallway must be, how many doors needed per square foot, and how far an exit has to be from any point in a room (150 feet max, if you must know).
- It would also put abortion facilities under the laws that require them to conform with a whole other array of regulations under the State Board of Medicine, State Board of Nursing, and State Board of Pharmacy.
- It would make them subject to license and inspection as well, as an ASF.