Louisiana Spotlight: Abortion regulations spark new debate

Louisiana’s abortion clinics have few sympathetic ears to bend on their concerns in a state where lawmakers have repeatedly supported new restrictions on their operations.

So, a temporary reprieve they just gained in a dispute with the state health department over licensing regulations might not necessarily mean much in the long run.

A new set of abortion regulations is being drafted, and supporters of the clinics wait tensely, hoping they can find public officials willing to listen to their suggestions.

Supporting abortion rights is a lonely political position in a state that has among the toughest anti-abortion laws in the nation, a point of pride to many lawmakers and other elected officials.

Bills that place restrictions on abortion pass with overwhelming and bipartisan support, even those that courts have later found unconstitutional. The Legislature has gone so far as to enact a law that says abortion is allowed in the state only because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the procedure is legal.

The latest skirmish over abortion rights in Louisiana centers on more than 20 pages of regulations enacted by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration before Thanksgiving.

The Department of Health and Hospitals said they were designed to comply with laws passed in 2013 and to clarify licensing requirements for abortion clinics.

But a firestorm of criticism followed their publication, with the clinics and their supporters claiming the rewritten standards would eventually lead to all five Louisiana clinics to shut down. In short, critics said regulators had gone too far.

The health department eventually backed down, announcing last week that it was shelving the regulations and would rewrite them.

“There were problems with the wording of the proposed rule changes,” DHH spokeswoman Olivia Watkins said in a statement.

It was a victory for abortion rights supporters, but it might be a short-lived one, depending on what the health department drafts next.

“This is not over — far from it,” said Bethany Van Kampen, a board member of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, which gives financial help to women who can’t afford the procedure.

Ellie Schilling, a New Orleans lawyer representing the abortion clinics, said the health department required more paperwork, larger clinic size standards and increased staffing requirements, while eliminating certain appeal rights for clinics accused of violations.

She said the changes seemed aimed at making it impossible for clinics — located in Shreveport, Bossier City, Baton Rouge and the New Orleans area — to comply with the rules.

Language also was included that would have required a pregnant woman to get a blood test 30 days before she could seek an abortion. Critics said that added a new waiting period not required under state law and could make it impossible for some women to get an abortion before the 20-week deadline of pregnancy.

Watkins said the health department was trying to protect patients, while also consolidating two years of regulations enacted in a piecemeal fashion as state legislators passed new abortion laws.

“During provider surveys, it became clear that providers were unaware of some licensing mandates and were cited for noncompliance,” she said.

Watkins gave no timeline for when new licensing standards would be issued. And the clinics haven’t gotten any assurances that they will be included in the discussions before the rewritten rules are released, according to Schilling.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion organizations are pushing for even tighter regulations and defended the rewritten licensing standards even after they were rescinded.

“The goal of the abortion industry is to sell more abortions. They are not in favor of common-sense regulations,” Benjamin Clapper, executive director of the anti-abortion organization Louisiana Right to Life, said in a statement.

The politically charged environment surrounding abortion seems likely to ensure the next round of rewritten licensing regulations will prompt a new round of controversy.

If abortion rights supporters and the health department can’t come to some agreement, the regulations could be settled where many Louisiana abortion disputes are decided: in court.

Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.