Proposed restrictions would shut most abortion clinics in the state

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Six years ago, Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania bought and renovated a historic Downtown building that it uses for family planning services and abortion procedures.

If a bill passed this week by the state Legislature is signed into law, the organization would soon be in possession of a building wildly out of compliance with new rules holding abortion clinics to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.

"What we expect is that the majority of abortion providers in Pennsylvania would be shut down for some time," said Rebecca Cavanaugh, vice president for public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. "For us the most cost-effective option would be to shut down and find a different building -- but we own this building."

The rules -- proposed in the wake of eight murder indictments against Philadelphia "house of horrors" abortion clinic provider Kermit Gosnell -- would likely require that abortion clinics expand their operating rooms and parking lots, install hospital-grade elevators and equip driveways for ambulances.

The cost would probably be "in the low millions," said Becky McDermott, executive director of Allegheny Reproductive Health Center in East Liberty, laughing that "just the expense of hiring an architect even giving us a consultation would bankrupt us."

Ms. McDermott said that the Gosnell case provided "the perfect opening" for opponents of abortion rights to restrict access to abortions under the guise of concern for women's health and safety.

"The parking spaces, the size of the [operating] rooms, none of it has to do with providing safer abortion care," she said. "This is an agenda that has nothing to do with women's health and safety and everything to do with abortion."

Supporters of the bill disagree, saying that the bill is a necessary correction to a state enforcement system that had become too lax.

"This law was a direct response to what was going on in [Dr.] Gosnell's facility where he killed a woman and jeopardized the health and safety of women and children," said Maria Vitale Gallagher, education director for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.

As an example of why rules for general surgery centers are necessary, she referenced Karnamaya Mongar, who died in 2009 at Dr. Gosnell's clinic from over-sedation. Her death was caused, in part, by narrow hallways and doorways in the clinic that complicated efforts by paramedics to save her life, according to the grand jury report.

Ms. Cavanaugh, of Planned Parenthood, said some of the most expensive standards required by the new law are clearly unnecessary for abortion providers, such as having a heating and air conditioning system capable of keeping air in a single room, to prevent the spread of highly communicable diseases.

If the bill is signed into law, abortion providers say they will wait for guidance from the state on where there is room for flexibility, including details of a waiver process. The bill also contains a 180-day waiting period before it takes effect.

There is also the possibility of legal action from abortion providers. One possible avenue under which to challenge the new law is to argue that it is "unduly burdensome" and therefore unconstitutional, said Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney at the Women's Law Project.

If abortion clinics do close, en masse, abortion providers argue that women will still get abortions but will do so through more dangerous means.

"This will make it likely that the Gosnells of the world will see more and more patients," Mr. Frankel said.


Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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