Abortion foes propose regulating Md. clinics

Lawmakers are ready to introduce Assembly bill

January 07, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland abortion clinics should operate under the same licensing requirements as other outpatient medical facilities to ensure the health of women, a group of anti-abortion lawmakers said yesterday in unveiling a new push to strengthen clinic regulations.

Lawmakers calling themselves the Pro-Life Caucus said at a news conference in Annapolis that they will introduce a bill during this year's General Assembly session making free-standing abortion clinics subject to the same rules as facilities that provide cosmetic surgery or kidney dialysis.

State law requires that abortions be performed by licensed doctors, but it does not regulate the locations where the procedures take place, something that lawmakers said is not widely known.

"Maryland women are not adequately protected from the backroom abortion phenomenon," said Sen. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican who will be a lead sponsor of the legislation. "We all know that Maryland has a pro-choice majority, but still, these people want standards."

Abortion providers and the state's top health official said more stringent regulations are not needed because there is no evidence that facilities pose a health risk.

While lawmakers say they want to improve women's health and safety, abortion-rights supporters said they hope to restrict access to the procedure in Maryland.

"This is a trend throughout the country," said Wendy Royalty, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Maryland. "Because the anti-abortion activists have not been successful in outlawing abortions, they have a well-coordinated strategy to make it difficult for women to get abortions."

Providers said that a proposed requirement to make abortion clinics follow the same rules as other surgery centers -- imposing mandates such as 8-foot-wide hallways or space for special equipment -- could force clinics out of business.

"It's really overkill," said John Nugent, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood, adding that clinic construction is covered by the state's building code for medical offices.

Maryland had 42 abortion providers in 2000, the most recent statistics available, said Ashlie Bagwell, executive director for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League/Pro-Choice Maryland. Many of those were obstetricians who perform abortions in their offices, raising questions about whether doctors' offices would be subject to the proposed regulatory expansion.

"We need to ... really define what is a free-standing abortion clinic," said state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini. "We already say abortions shouldn't be done by anybody but a doctor, and we license doctors. Are we going to open this whole question of `Am I going to further regulate physicians' offices?'"

Sabatini, an appointee of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. who was also state health secretary when the state's last abortion overhaul was approved in 1991, said he does not perceive a threat to public health that would warrant more regulation.

But abortion opponents say that's the point: Because clinics are largely unregulated, they do not report to the state the number of procedures performed yearly or complications that may arise from them.

"The numbers don't exist," said Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican. "It's simple accountability."

The state pays for about 4,000 Medicaid-funded abortions yearly, which are done in hospitals; the Baltimore-region Planned Parenthood clinics do 2,600 yearly.

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