Melinda Deslatte/AP

Louisiana passes bill that could shutter state abortion clinics

Legislature passes bill requiring local hospital admitting privileges for doctors performing surgical abortions

The Louisiana State Senate on Wednesday passed a bill requiring that doctors who perform abortion procedures must have admitting privileges at local hospitals within a 30-mile radius. The effect may be to shutter some of the state’s abortion clinics if Gov. Bobby Jindal signs the bill into law.

While abortion opponents say the bill — which was already approved by the House — is intended to protect women’s health, reproductive health experts say it’s part of a growing trend in the southern United States of restricting access to abortions by forcing clinics to close.

“What abortion opponents have honed in on is that if they require abortion providers to have privileges, that getting those privileges is so difficult that they can result in the closing of the clinics,” Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Washington-based Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health policy and rights group, told Al Jazeera. “It really is a way to eliminate access to abortion services.”

Louisiana’s bill was co-authored by Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Democrat who chairs the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, who said it “proposes common-sense safety standards to protect the lives and health of pregnant women who may experience short-term risks immediately following a surgical or drug-induced abortion,” including hemorrhage or infection.

Jindal has said he supports the legislation, and tweeted on Wednesday that he was “looking forward to signing HB 388 by @Repkjackson. This bill will give women the health and safety protections they deserve.”

In July 2013, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed a law that banned abortions after 20 weeks and required doctors administering abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Because the approval process for hospital admitting privileges is complicated and can take months, that requirement compelled the closure of most abortion clinics in a vast, impoverished swath of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. Just 22 clinics are open in a state with 26 million people, down from around 40 before, according to the nonprofit Texas Women Fund, which is tracking the closures.

Utah was the first state to pass such a law back in 1998, but in the last few years, in addition to Texas, Kansas, North Dakota and Tennessee have also followed suit. Alabama, Mississippi and Wisconsin have also passed legislation that would require hospital admitting privileges for abortion-providing physicians, but those laws are tangled up in legal red tape. A federal district court is currently hearing arguments about Alabama’s law, and on May 27, a federal trial is set to begin to consider Wisconsin’s law. Meanwhile, if a federal appeals court upholds Mississippi’s legislation, it could close the state’s sole abortion provider.

However, both the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Medical Association (PDF) have said surgical abortion procedures are so safe — less than 1 percent of cases have complications, with just 0.05 percent requiring hospital treatment — that hospital admitting privileges are not medically necessary.

Former ACOG president Dr. Jeanne Conry has gone as far as to point out that mortality rates associated with colonoscopies, which are considered low-risk medical procedures, are 40 times higher than those of abortions, but gastroenterologists’ practices are not restricted for safety reasons. “Abortion procedures are among the safest medical procedures, but the earlier in a pregnancy it is performed, the safer it is,” she said in a statement. “Restricting access will lead to dangerous delays for women.”

In the meantime, states in the process of seeking legal resolution are in wait-and-see mode as to how many abortion clinics and doctors will be affected, but closures may be on the horizon.

“What we’re ultimately seeing is that the potential impact here is very dramatic,” said Guttmacher’s Nash.

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