Proposed abortion rules touch off protest

Abortion rights supporters claimed success Tuesday as the state health agency scrapped new rules for outpatient abortion facility licensing, but said they remain leery of what comes next.

“We consider it to be a great victory,” New Orleans lawyer Ellie T. Schilling said.

Schilling said opponents of the proposed rules hope that the state Department of Health and Hospitals “will come back with commonsense regulations in consultation with the providers that will be effective and not come back with similar onerous restrictions.”

“We were loud and we were heard,” said Bethany Van Kampen, a New Orleans Abortion Fund member. But, she added, “This is far from over” and promised a similar protest if DHH insists on regulations like the ones scuttled that would shut down clinics and unconstitutionally restrict a woman’s access to abortion.

Louisiana Right to Life Federation Executive Director Benjamin Clapper said the rules will “look much better the second time around … as they modify and improve our abortion facility regulations.”

“DHH was wise to take a step back to make sure they could withstand legal challenges … especially when you have a whole legion of abortion attorneys going to sue them if they put this in place,” Clapper said in an interview.

Clapper said DHH is trying to make the regulations meet the requirements in state law and put them all in one place so the industry would know what standards it had to meet.

DHH suddenly canceled a planned Tuesday afternoon public hearing on the abortion clinic licensing standards. “There were problems with the wording,” according to a statement issued by DHH communications director Olivia Watkins. Watkins said the rules would be revised “for consistency and clarity.”

A DHH news release said the agency would issue “a revised rule and letter of intent at a later date” after which a new public hearing would be scheduled to receive public comment. No time frame was given for the revamp.

On Tuesday, about three dozen opponents came to Baton Rouge to protest the rules, holding a rally on the front steps of DHH headquarters. They delivered three cardboard boxes containing what Schilling said were some 6,000 written comments from individuals and groups both from Louisiana and out of state opposing the regulations. Some delineated potential legal problems if the rules were adopted, she said.

DHH officials said the licensing standards rewrite was prompted by the passage to two new laws — one aimed at preventing telemedicine abortions and another preventing parents from forcing underage daughters to have an abortion.

But the rewrite turned in 21 pages of new regulations, which prompted an outcry from abortion rights supporters who said they amounted to “a backdoor ban on abortions” in Louisiana.

Schilling, who represents the state’s abortion facilities, said the proposed rules raised serious constitutional issues, including posing “an undue burden on a woman’s access to abortion services.”

Among the flaws, according to Schilling, was a provision that would require a woman to have blood tests at least 30 days prior to the abortion procedure. She said it would amount in many cases to a 30-day waiting period and could push the abortion beyond Louisiana’s 20-week deadline to have an abortion.

Schilling also said clinics’ rights to appeal violations were “dramatically reduced,” minor violations could lead to license revocation and changes in ownership and location would require new licensing.

The new rules also imposed new square-footage requirements on procedure and recovery rooms that no abortion clinic would be in compliance with, she said.

DHH indicated last week that there were problems with the rules involving the timing of the blood test and the square-footage requirement.

Five abortion clinics operate in the state today. They are located in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Metairie, Shreveport and Bossier City.

DHH closed another clinic — Midtown Medical in New Orleans about 18 months ago. It has been fighting for reinstatement of its license.

“If the five clinics left are shut down, what’s the alternative?” Midtown owner Maria Couevas asked. “I’m afraid the women will have no place left to go.”