Court battles loom on abortion clinic restrictions

Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana state Capitol building in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana state Capitol building in Baton Rouge.

Similar Louisiana legislation headed to Jindal’s desk for signature

With a highly restrictive abortion bill awaiting Gov. Bobby Jindal’s certain signature, the constitutionality of similar laws recently passed in other states is being argued in the legal arena.

The battle over an Alabama law will be argued in federal district court beginning Monday, and a federal trial begins May 27 in Wisconsin. Both laws have been blocked by courts from taking effect pending the outcome.

Being challenged are laws that, like the one on Louisiana’s horizon, would require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the procedure is performed. Such a privilege allows a physician to admit patients to a particular facility and treat them on the premises.

The question before the courts is whether the restriction unconstitutionally restricts access for women seeking safe and legal abortions.

In Louisiana, abortion clinics in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Metairie are expected to close with passage of the requirement, according to legislative testimony. That would leave two — in Shreveport and Bossier City.

As in Louisiana, opponents argue that the laws backed by anti-abortion forces are aimed at shutting down abortion clinics. They point to what’s happened in Texas, the only state in which the law has taken effect and where more than two dozen clinics have had to close.

Lawyers from the ACLU and Planned Parenthood Federation of America are representing plaintiffs in the Alabama and Wisconsin cases. Attorneys from the Center for Reproductive Rights are representing Mississippi’s only abortion provider in a challenge of a similar law there. A decision on that law is pending in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

All three groups are fighting the statute in Texas, the only state in which the requirement is being enforced. Earlier this year, the 5th Circuit upheld Texas’ admitting-privileges requirement, saying it did not create “an undue burden.”

The Mississippi case before the 5th Circuit differs from the Texas challenge because Mississippi — unlike Texas — has only one abortion provider. The number of Texas clinics has been cut in half from nearly 50 in recent years, and the numbers continue to go lower as physicians cannot obtain hospital privileges.

If appeals fail, Mississippi would become the first state without an abortion clinic since 1973’s Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.

Pro-abortion-rights groups are closely watching Louisiana, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. The Louisiana legislation is expected to go to Jindal’s desk as early as next week for signing into law. He has said he will sign the measure.

Proponents push the legislation as a way to ensure the life and safety of women when complications occur during and after abortions. Physicians who perform the procedures should take care of their patients when problems arise, they say, and having nearby hospital-admitting privileges is not unreasonable.

But as the Alabama and Wisconsin cases prepare to go to trial, those contesting the restriction beg to differ.

ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project Director Jennifer Dalven said doctors cannot get admitting privileges to local hospitals for a variety of reasons.

Some require a certain minimum number of patients to be admitted every year, which abortion providers do not have because of the safety of the procedure, she said. Some hospitals have requirements involving where a doctor lives, and other hospitals are “hostile to abortions.”

Dalven said two Texas physicians had their hospital privileges yanked recently because they were “too controversial.”

In Alabama, three of five remaining clinics would have to close; in Wisconsin, at least one of four.

Mississippi has one clinic, in Jackson, and the physician there applied to every local hospital and was unable to get admitting privileges, said Helene Krasnoff, senior director of public policy litigation and law for Planned Parenthood.

“The ability to get privileges has nothing to do with qualifications,” she said.

With the adoption of such laws, Kransnoff said the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a country where a woman’s right to access safe, legal abortions depends on where she lives. “That’s why we are fighting on all fronts. A woman’s right should not depend on her ZIP code,” she said.

Fighting alongside the pro-abortion-rights groups are medical groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association.

“Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in the U.S. today,” said Dr. Jeanne A. Conry, immediate past president of the OB-GYN group.

In the event a problem crops up, Conry said, medical care is available at any nearby hospital. “Hospitals are staffed with emergency physicians, on-call specialists,” she said.

“Under the guise of protecting women’s health, it is making it harder for them to receive safe, early abortion care in a timely fashion,” she said.

Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.