AP Wire

Pro-choice group sues La. over abortion rules

by Janet McConnaughey, Associated Press

Photo by Charlotte Cooper/Wikimedia

After court victories against abortion laws in Texas and Louisiana, a reproductive rights group filed a federal challenge on Tuesday of a Louisiana licensing law it blames for more than a thousand burdensome anti-abortion regulations.

The state rules require a vaginal exam whether or not a woman’s doctor thinks it’s necessary, enable state officials to review the medical records of every woman who has an abortion, and make doctors “provide their patients with misleading or false information about abortion, such as the bogus claim that abortion causes breast cancer,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York.

The Louisiana Department of Health referred a query about the lawsuit to the Attorney General’s Office, which said it can’t comment on specifics. State lawyers are evaluating the 56-page lawsuit, but “our office is confident the laws are constitutional,” their emailed statement said.

The center filed its federal lawsuit in Baton Rouge, on the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a Texas requirement that abortion providers have hospital admitting privileges. The justices ruled 5-3 that abortion regulations are unconstitutional if evidence shows their burdens outweigh their benefits.

“Legal abortion is extremely safe. It does not require a multitude of specifically targeted regulations — governing buildings, medical personnel, recordkeeping, testing, counseling, and everything in between — to make it safer,” the lawsuit says. Such laws are burdensome and superfluous, since abortion clinics must already meet all standards for clinics, hospitals and doctors’ offices, it says.

The main focus of the 56-page lawsuit is a 2001 Louisiana licensing law that has been the basis for most of the more than 1,000 regulations imposed on abortion providers in the state, attorney David Brown said during the group’s teleconference.

Louisiana had 11 abortion clinics in 2001 and now has only three, “so it’s easy to see the laws had the intended effects,” said Kathaleen Pittman, administrator of the Hope Medical Group in Shreveport.

Hope Medical Group’s parent company is joined by three anonymous doctors as plaintiffs. Two work at the clinic and the third is a surgeon who would like to do so, but cannot because he’s not licensed in family practice or obstetrics-gynecology, as the state requires. It’s an example of how abortion clinics are forced to meet much stricter standards than outpatient clinics for “other similarly low-risk healthcare,” the lawsuit says.

“The effect has been to make it substantially more difficult to access abortion in Louisiana, without making it any safer,” it says.

The Texas ruling “made it very clear that sham restrictions on abortion have to be evaluated on a fact-based standard,” Brown said.

Still, forcing states to apply the burdens vs. benefits balancing test will likely require similar lawsuits in every state that has restrictive abortion laws, he said.

“Similarly worded restrictions might have different effects in different states,” he said.

Louisiana’s admitting privileges law remains in court because the state appealed a ruling by District Judge John deGravelles that cited the Supreme Court’s decision on the Texas law. The center is also litigating its request for $4.7 million in attorneys’ fees from Louisiana in that case.

Meanwhile, the center has invoked the Texas ruling to persuade courts to block similar laws in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Ohio and Wisconsin, president and CEO Nancy Northup said. New cases citing the ruling have been filed in Alaska, Arkansas, North Carolina, Texas and Louisiana, where a separate suit challenges seven laws passed last year. Virginia’s board of health has amended its “Texas-style clinic shutdown regulations” in light of the ruling, and similar laws in Kentucky and Missouri are on hold, she said.