The administrator of a Shreveport abortion clinic testified in federal court Monday that a new state requirement for physicians is unconstitutional because it retricts access for what is a legal procedure.
Like Texas, Mississippi and other states, Louisiana passed a law in 2014 that, among other things, requires abortion clinic doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where the pregnancy-ending procedure is performed. For many communities, particularly rural ones, the nearest hospital could be scores of miles away, meaning those clinics would have to close and women would have drive long distances.
Several constitutional challenges have been filed in courts around the nation. Different panels have rendered different rulings on the three-state 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in cases from Texas and Mississippi. This Louisiana lawsuit — filed by abortion clinics in Metairie, Shreveport and Bossier City and by unnamed physicians — likely will be appealed to the 5th Circuit regardless of the outcome.
The trial, which began Monday, included testimony given by an abortion physician from behind a black curtain, to cloak identity from everyone but U.S. District Court Judge John deGravelles.
Dr. Doe 3, a Bossier City OB-GYN with hospital privileges, told deGravelles that he feared for his security if he became the only abortion provider in northwest Louisiana. “I believe that makes me a target for those opponents to abortion. All they have to do is eliminate me like other abortion providers around the country,” he said.
Anti-abortion forces say the law is necessary to protect the health of women who get abortions, in cases of complications, such as hemorrhaging or a perforated uterus.
Opponents argue that the law is medically unnecessary. And any number of barriers can keep physicians from obtaining the privilege of admitting a patient to a particular hospital from maintaining a certain number of patients admitted to a particular hospital to religious considerations.
Dr. Christopher Estes, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida, testified that hospital admitting privileges for abortion clinic physicians do not conform to common medical standards. “In fact, it’s opposed by the medical community,” he said, adding that the American College of Surgeons and the American Medical Association are among those who don’t believe it’s necessary.
Kathaleen Pittman, head of Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, testified that admitting privileges at a nearby hospital serves no real purpose because in the rare event an emergency happens, the patient is transported to the nearest hospital emergency room.
The clinic performs 3,000-plus abortions a year, she said. Pittman could recall only four instances in more than 20 years where patients were taken to a hospital.
Michael Johnson, a defense attorney for the state, questioned the accuracy of Pittman’s claims. He said the 0.007 percent of patient complications over the last 20 years Hope reports is limited to the number of patients requiring direct hospital transport. “It leaves out many women who leave Hope Clinic and get care anywhere else,” he said.
Johnson, a state representative, is a well-known anti-abortion lawyer who is serving on the legal team of state Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert. She is expected to testify Tuesday.
Pittman said women call if they encounter post-abortion problems and the clinic responds to a 24-7 hot-line.
Johnson also questioned Pittman about deficiencies found by state inspectors at the Hope clinic that raised concerns over patient health and safety and at one point lead to a license suspension.
Pittman said some violations were fixed the day of the inspections. She said Hope officials worked with DHH to correct others.
Under the Louisiana law at issue, the admitting privileges requirement was supposed to go into effect last September, but deGravelles issued a temporary restraining order. It remains in effect until the completion of the trial ruling on the merits. The Legislature overwhelming approved the law, which was supported by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.
On the national level, one panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeal said the Texas law passed constitutional muster.
Another panel upheld challenges to the Mississippi law which would have shut down the state’s only abortion clinic. In a 2-1 ruling, the panel said Mississippi lawmakers went too far and the law “effectively extinguishes” a woman’s right to choose “within Mississippi’s borders.”
Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter @MarshaShulerCNB. For more coverage of the state capitol, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.