WASHINGTON, July 15, 2013 – The Texas abortion confrontation is emblematic of similar political battles taking place in over 29 states where new laws are forcing several abortion clinics to shut down.
In light of the recent trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell and other similar scandals, pro-life advocates claim that more stringent abortion laws are necessary to protect women’s health. Critics, however, claim that the practical effect of the laws is to make a safe and legal abortion impossible to obtain.
In this politically charged arena, states have found it impossible to balance making the procedure safe for women with making it accessible to all women. Yet, as a recent New York Times piece points out, Maryland has come up with new regulations supported by both sides.
The push for stricter abortion laws
The most controversial sections in the Texas abortion law force abortion clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, ban all abortions over 20 weeks, and require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges in nearby hospitals. Attempts to water down the bill with articles such as making exceptions for rape and the mother’s health were rejected.
The practical effect of the new laws in Texas will most likely lead to the closing of 37 of the state’s 42 clinics.
The latest abortion debate has split along party lines, with Republicans pushing for stricter abortion laws citing the state’s interest in the woman’s health, and Democrats arguing that the laws infringe on a woman’s constitutional rights and force women to seek dangerous alternatives.
The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have confirmed that states may limit abortion beyond the guidelines established in Roe v. Wade. However, they have also ruled that states may not limit abortion to the extent that it makes an abortion impossible to obtain.
In recent years and months Republican-controlled state legislatures have set out to test the legal limits of these rulings. In several states, federal courts have struck down abortion laws similar to the one in Texas. Earlier this month, for example, a law requiring admitting privileges for abortion doctors in Wisconsin was blocked by a federal judge.
And then there’s Maryland
Amid the political bickering that is taking over in the rest of the country, however, Maryland has taken a decidedly different route.
Maryland’s first system of licensing and inspecting abortion clinics came into full force this year, with several laws designed to tighten state oversight of abortion clinics. The new regulations announced by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene include a new licensing system for all abortion clinics and strict guidelines that they must follow.
The new rules allow state regulators to inspect, fine, and close down facilities that do not meet the new guidelines. Modeled on guidelines followed by outpatient surgical facilities, the new rules require clinics to follow standards related to emergency services, anesthesia, radiology, and lab work. They do not, however, require particular hallway widths or a minimum number of parking spaces, as laws in other states do.
Recognizing that hospital doctors are better equipped to handle a medical emergency, the new Maryland rules do not require doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. However, they do allow clinic doctors to advise emergency personnel without having admitting privileges.
The new Maryland legislation has received praise from both sides.
“We think the rules will go a long way in protecting the safety of women,” said Nancy E. Paltell, associate director of Respect for Life, which lobbies on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church and is against abortions.
“We are making this procedure … as safe as it can be without prohibiting access,” said Jodi Finkelstein, executive director of NARAL, Pro-Choice Maryland.
This type of agreement has not come as the result of violent fights in the state legislature, filibusters, or lawsuits. Instead, Maryland’s new system of abortion clinic oversight has come as the result of negotiations by health officials—not politicians—in consultation with medical groups, clinic managers, members of the community, and anti-abortion leaders.
Supported by both pro and anti-abortion leaders, Maryland’s new abortion laws are aimed at improving the safeguards for patients while at the same time not imposing costly burdens on clinics that would limit access to legal abortions.
The dangers of politicizing the issue (further)
Several Women’s rights and pro-choice leaders take issue with laws like the one proposed in Texas. Advocates claim that this kind of legislation is not only medically unnecessary, it also has the effect of making a legal and safe abortion impossible to obtain. The Texas Medical Association, Texas Hospital Association, and American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology oppose the Texas legislation for this particular reason.
Others oppose stricter abortion laws, arguing that the high costs of converting clinics to meet medically unnecessary standards will force most clinics to close and drive up prices for procedures in the clinics that manage to remain open.
Raising the cost of abortion beyond the reach of poor women and making it geographically inaccessible to a large portion of the population forces women to seek alternatives like unlicensed clinics and the thriving black market in drugs that induce miscarriage.
Maryland’s rational process on abortion laws is an excellent model for the country. Instead of allowing politicians to distort the issue to meet their political agendas, states should consult medical professionals on what is really best for a woman’s health. Let doctors decide medical issues and leave politicians to politics.
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