Photo: Brian Stansberry / Creative Commons
By Jake Grovum, Staff Writer
New state restrictions on clinics that provide abortions could leave millions of women—many of them poor and uninsured—without easy access to cancer screenings and other basic health care services.
In recent years, abortion opponents have tried to limit abortions by barring them after a certain number of weeks and by requiring women who want to end their pregnancies to have ultrasounds. Those strategies target abortion directly.
Now abortion opponents in some states are pushing for new standards for clinics, such as requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, that may be difficult or impossible for them to meet.
Abortion rights supporters fear the new rules could force many clinics to close—a result that would make it more difficult for women to get a broad array of health care services, not just abortions.
“Every time a clinic closes, the women who would be using those clinics, it’s not as if those women stop existing,” said Kimberly Inez McGuire of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, an advocacy group. “It will affect whether women can get cancer screenings, whether women can get to a provider to get their blood pressure checked.”
“Clinics that serve women who may not have insurance are literally a lifeline,” McGuire said.
Fifteen states now require clinic doctors to have hospital admitting privileges, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights.
In addition, 26 states require abortion-providing clinics to meet surgical facility standards, which stipulate everything from the size of certain rooms, the types of light switches used and the width of hallways.
Supporters say such requirements are common-sense public health measures. They cite high-profile examples of poor oversight and gruesome malpractice cases, most notably the Kermit Gosnell case in Philadelphia.
“What is so wrong about having high health standards in place?” asked Alabama Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin, who sponsored legislation which includes clinic regulations and requirements for doctors that has been blocked by a federal judge. “If they would just do what was in the best interest of the patient, it would not be a problem.”
Opponents of such laws say they might close a vital health care entryway for women. In many states, the clinics offer services ranging from sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment to mammograms, Pap tests and cancer screenings.
They also offer family planning counseling and birth control services—in many cases at reduced fees for the uninsured.
In 2011 and 2012, the Guttmacher Institute conducted a survey of women receiving services at family planning centers located in communities in which there were other health care options.
About four in 10 women said they used a clinic as their exclusive health care provider in the past year. Among other reasons, the women said they preferred going to a clinic because staff there knew more about women’s health and it was easier to talk to them about sex.
The connection between the clinics, public health care programs and women’s health was further underscored by a Kaiser Family Foundation study.
The report noted that in many states, there are few providers willing to accept Medicaid or other subsidized insurance programs. In those places, the clinics are a vital, and sometimes the only, option for low-income people.
For example, in 2011 Texas blocked Planned Parenthood-affiliated health centers from receiving funds from the state’s Medicaid Women’s Health Program.
Prior to the funding cut-off, those centers were caring for nearly 50,000 patients. The program served 63 percent fewer women the year after the cuts, state data showed.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has also argued that clinic closings could damage women’s health. The group blasted Texas’ new abortion law and measures under consideration in North Carolina.
Those who back the laws argue the regulations would make the clinics safer.
So far, courts haven’t bought that argument, seeing laws that could shutter clinics as potentially unconstitutionally restrictive of abortion.
Courts already have blocked physician requirements in Mississippi and Alabama. Last week, Wisconsin’s law was temporarily blocked by a federal judge and advocates are preparing to fight Texas’ law as well.
“The courts have seen right through the arguments that this is somehow supposed to protect women’s health,” said Julie Rikelman of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is involved in the legal fights. “These laws really hurt women’s health, not help them.”
Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.