Anti-abortion group calls for surprise inspections at clinics; pro-choice groups assail Morrisey's abortion review
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Christian evangelical group that sparked Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's review of abortion regulations in West Virginia says abortion clinics should be licensed and should undergo surprise inspections, according to a letter sent to Morrisey's office last week.
The Family Policy Council of West Virginia also wants the state to establish specific staffing and building structural requirements for abortion clinics -- measures that abortion rights activists say are designed to put the facilities out of business.
"What is at stake is nothing less than the safety and health of our state's sisters and daughters," said Jeremiah Dys, the council's president, in a 10-page letter sent to Morrisey's office last week.
Dys was responding to Morrisey's request for public comments on abortion regulations. Morrisey, who opposes abortion, started his review after Dys' group filed a lawsuit against a Charleston doctor who allegedly botched an abortion last year.
On Tuesday, women's health advocates plan to rally at the state Capitol in Charleston to oppose Morrisey's abortion review. They say he's targeting abortion clinics because a "special interest group has a religious and political agenda to make safe, legal abortion care unavailable to West Virginia women."
"This attorney general has teamed up with political minorities to advance an attack on women's health," said Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of WV FREE, an abortion rights group. "We all know their goal is to ultimately make all abortion care illegal."
In his letter to Morrisey, Dys said he's recommending specific steps to regulate abortion without "limiting in any way a woman's reproductive choice."
Dys said abortion clinics should not be allowed to employ doctors who have been sued eight or more times for medical malpractice. The physicians also should have admitting privileges at a hospital within 15 miles of the clinic where they work.
Abortion clinics should be licensed like ambulatory surgical facilities -- also known as outpatient or same-day surgery centers, Dys said.
"The abortion procedure is a surgical procedure that employs the use of extremely sharp medical instruments into the reproductive organs of a female within very close proximity to major arteries and essential bodily organs," Dys wrote to Morrisey. "In short, the abortion procedure is a surgery. It ought to be treated like a surgical facility."
Dys said the clinics should be required to "open their doors" to unannounced health and safety inspections at least four times a year.
"Since the abortion industry came to West Virginia in 1976, not a single health and safety inspector has been sent by the state to ensure that, for instance, medical instruments have been properly sanitized, medical equipment is working properly, human remains are being properly reported and disposed, and Medicaid reimbursement is free of over-billing," Dys wrote.
Dys also recommends that abortion clinics meet building structural requirements. Among them:
| Exits, doors and hallways wide enough to accommodate medical gurneys.
| Storage rooms for clean and soiled linens.
| Adequate lighting and ventilation.
| Adequate areas for storing medical records, equipment and supplies.
A law recently passed in Texas, that places similar requirements on abortion clinic facilities and requires doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, sparked a 12-hour filibuster and an impassioned national debate.
Dys said the state also should establish minimum standards for abortion clinic personnel. He said the facilities should have medical directors, and surgical assistants and volunteers with specialized training.
"These reasonable regulations simply work to ensure that, if surgical abortions are to remain legal, there is a modicum of accountability placed upon this invasive, outpatient surgical procedure," Dys said.
Abortion rights advocates say such measures -- including medical staffing mandates, and specific dimension requirements for rooms and hallways -- put unnecessary burdens on abortion clinics. Many clinics can't afford to remodel facilities or hire extra personnel with specialized training.
"All health care providers in this state should be held to high standards and regulations, and the fact is, they are," said Chapman Pomponio. "A political organization should not attempt to change the practice of medicine in West Virginia."
Earlier this year, Dys's group filed a lawsuit against Dr. Rodney Stephens and the Women's Health Center of West Virginia, one of two stand-alone abortion clinics in the state. Dys is representing Itai Gravely, a 27-year-old Charleston woman who alleges that Stephens performed an abortion on her, even though she asked the doctor to stop. The lawsuit also claims that Stephens left the fetus' head inside her uterus.
Stephens and the clinic have denied the allegations.
Morrisey seized on Dys' lawsuit, saying it "raises serious questions about how such clinics in West Virginia and inspected and reviewed to ensure patients are safe." Morrisey directed the Women's Health Center and a Kanawha City abortion clinic to answer questions about abortion procedures conducted at their facilities. The clinics declined to answer his specific questions, saying they were under no obligation to do so.
Chapman Pomponio said West Virginians are watching the "shenanigans of this attorney general closely." Up to 350 people are expected to attend the rally on Tuesday, the second day of August's legislative interim meetings.
"Our goal is to send a strong message that we won't let them play politics with a woman's health and safety," she said. "We embrace positive forward motion for West Virginia and want to show decision-makers that the voters of this state support them in their efforts to beat back this ugly, regressive agenda."
Dys said his group would not be organizing any kind of counter protest Tuesday.
"I'm not interested in protesting," he said. "What we need today is a serious discussion about this important issue, an issue that is having a serious -- sometimes devastating -- impact on the health and safety of our state's sisters and daughters."
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.