Law could effectively close most of Louisiana's abortion clinics

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wwltv.com

Posted on June 9, 2014 at 10:25 AM

Maya Lau and Adam Duverney, Gannett

The Louisiana Legislature proved it can circumvent Roe vs Wade for most of the state by framing a pro-life cause as a women's health issue.

Last month, state legislators approved a bill that effectively will put an end to legal abortion services statewide except in Shreveport, if abortion doctors in other parts of the state are unable to meet new stipulations. The bill said nothing about closing clinics, but the requirements it slapped onto abortion doctors will make it impossible for them to practice without privileges from nearby hospitals.

Gov. Bobby Jindal is expected to sign the legislation soon.

There are two abortion clinics at risk in New Orleans. Causeway Medical Clinic confirmed their doctors are seeking ways to remain operational under the new regulations, but Women's Health Care Center could notbe reached for comment. Delta Clinic of Baton Rouge declined to comment on their current or future status of operations. The other Louisiana clinics are in Shreveport and Bossier City, one of which is at risk.

The most active feature of Louisiana House Bill 388 requires physicians performing the procedure to have active admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic where the abortion is administered. It's not a common standard for American abortion clinics, and many say it is meant to curb constitutionally protected abortions.

"If they're going to close down the clinics, the women will have fewer options to continue on with the choices they want to make," said Shreveport resident Claudia Diaz. "It's manipulative. It's using the system against the same people who still want to have options. If anything, they should make it easier to have admitting privileges. It's just this sneaky way of the pro-life."

Others will be happy to see abortion clinics close no matter the justification, even when they say they can see through rhetoric about women's health.

"I am pro-life. I am against abortion," said Shreveport resident Katherine Mika. "It is a Catch-22, though, because then you go back to stupid women getting pregnant and not wanting the babies who have to go to these sleazy places to get the abortion. That's a shame. But, if that's what it takes, so be it. They know how to get pregnant and they know how to prevent it. So close the clinics and educate."

Abortion care specialists in Louisiana and Texas said this bill is just another mechanism to legally close clinics.

"Let me be clear upfront, it has nothing to do with the health and welfare of women. It is about shutting clinics," said Kathaleen Pittman, administrator of the Hope Medical Group for Women, the only abortion center in Shreveport.

But proponents of HB 388 say hospital admitting privileges are a way to make sure women have access to the care they need.

State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said he supported the bill for the sake of both women and the unborn.

The law will protect women by making sure a hospital will accept them, but "I want to protect the babies, too. Obviously there is a pro-life element." Asked if it would be safer for women to carry a pregnancy to term than receive an abortion, Seabaugh said, "It's certainly better for the baby."

Pittman said the clinic already provides care to women from Texas and Arkansas, but with more patients expected to arrive from southern Louisiana and with only one doctor who meets the requirements of HB 388 on its staff, the facility likely will have to make some women wait for appointments.

Delaying an abortion until later in a pregnancy is not advised, she said. And it adds another troublesome element to a procedure that's already fraught for the women who come to Hope, most of whom are low-income and are trying to provide for the children they already have, according to Pittman.

"We see so many women who are trying to improve their lot," Pittman said. "They want to do better for themselves and their children. They have to have some options if they're going to do that."

Pittman also anticipates more anti-abortion protests to occur outside. She's received personal threats in the past, but at the moment she's unsure of the need to hire more security guards for Hope.

Pittman declined to reveal how many abortions are performed annually at Hope Medical Group for Women.

The Bossier City Medical Suite, which also provides abortion care, is working on meeting the new requirements, according to its lawyers. That clinic, like the others in Louisiana, will be seeking those privileges to avoid having to cease abortion care on the law's effective date, Sept. 1.

The new regulations received overwhelming support in the state Legislature, putting Louisiana in nearly the same situation as Texas and Mississippi, which have seen many of their clinics shuttered or facing closure.

"The main problem with these types of bills is that they put the decision about whether abortion should be legal and available in a given state in the hands of a hospital," said Amanda Allen, Center for Reproductive Rights state legislative counsel for Louisiana. That situation is tricky, she said, because it puts hospitals under a microscope, forcing them to contend with political pressure, and, potentially, demonstrations by anti-abortion extremists.

Allen said whenever abortion access is limited to one location in an entire state, that facility could become overwhelmed with patients, creating longer wait times and potentially causing women to delay abortions until later in their pregnancies.

"For me, it's really hard to see how forcing women to wait weeks to receive abortion care protects their health," she said.

The Louisiana bill was sponsored by State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, and modeled on a Texas law which took effect late last year.

Calls to Jackson's district office were not immediately returned.

State representatives Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans and Ebony Woodruff, D-Harvey, also didn't immediately return calls for comment. Moreno and Woodruff were the only two women in the House who voted against the bill. Norton did not vote at all.

Republican state Sen. Sherri Smith Buffington, R-Keithville, also did not immediately return calls for comment.

The American Medical Association, the nation's largest professional association of physicians, along with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the leading U.S. organization of doctors specializing in women's health, jointly voiced public opposition to the measure in Texas, saying "there is simply no medical basis" to the idea that physicians who perform abortions ought to have admitting privileges.

Pittman, who has experience sending patients with ectopic pregnancies to the hospital, said admitting privileges aren't necessary to quickly and efficiently transfer a woman to a hospital.

"All it takes is one phone call," she said.

And abortion doctors are at a disadvantage in trying to obtain admitting privileges in the first place, Pittman said, because they present little financial incentive for hospitals since abortion is so safe it rarely results in hospitalization.

Unlike some other politicians, who stopped short of claiming that HB 388 was part of a pro-life strategy, Seabaugh openly applauded that aspect of the bill.

"It tells me we've got one more to go," Seabaugh said. "If I could find a way to legally close the one in Shreveport, I would."

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