Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast sued Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration on Friday over the group's longstanding request for permission to perform abortions in New Orleans, saying the state Health Department has violated its constitutional rights by ignoring its application for more than a year.
The nonprofit group asked the department in September 2016 to grant an abortion permit for its new facility on South Claiborne Avenue, the only such application the Edwards administration has received.
But nothing has been done since then, the lawsuit claims, even though the total number of abortion clinics in Louisiana has dwindled from seven in 2010 to three, in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport.
Planned Parenthood says the state sent it a letter in June 2017, nearly nine months after its application was filed, claiming that it was unable to move forward with the application because the state needs to conduct an investigation into Planned Parenthood to determine if it has violated any laws.
"In fact, the 'investigation' referenced … is a sham," attorneys for Planned Parenthood wrote in a federal lawsuit filed in Baton Rouge.
They said the Health Department "has been conducting politically motivated 'investigations' of (Planned Parenthood) for years, each time without finding any legitimate evidence of wrongdoing, never mind evidence that would justify the denial of (Planned Parenthood's) license to operate an abortion facility in New Orleans."
Planned Parenthood has not received any communications from the state since the June 2017 letter, according to the lawsuit.
Health Department Executive Counsel Stephen Russo declined to comment on the claims Friday, citing the pending litigation.
Edwards, who is Catholic, has not been shy about his pro-life stance. Though he is a Democrat, Edwards as a state representative had a strong pro-life voting record.
Since taking office, he has signed legislation that would bar the state from giving any financial support to Planned Parenthood if it begins performing abortions at its New Orleans clinic.
Edwards has also signed legislation that requires women to wait three days before they can get an abortion in Louisiana, as well as a new law requiring doctors who perform abortions to be either board-certified or certifiable in either obstetrics and gynecology or family medicine.
Louisiana abortion providers were already facing challenges before Edwards took office. Under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Legislature passed new restrictions on abortion clinics, prompting legal battles.
One of them, requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, forced the closure of some clinics before it was struck down in April by a federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a similar Texas law in 2016.
The application at issue now is Planned Parenthood's second for the South Claiborne Avenue facility. Its first, filed in 2014 under the Jindal administration, was denied after the Health Department applied a regulation typically used for residential health care centers to abortion clinics. That regulation requires such clinics to prove there is a dire need for their services.
Planned Parenthood appealed, and the department reversed course, lifting that denial and clearing the way for a new application to be submitted.
The nonprofit filed its revised application in September 2016, in a process its officials said appeared to be straightforward.
But nothing has been done in a year and a half, which is "more than an adequate period of time for (the Health Department) to review and respond,” said Rochelle Tafolla, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood.
“Planned Parenthood has followed the administrative process, and yet the state has not provided a response to the application,” she said.
While the department did not directly respond to Planned Parenthood's claims, spokesman Robert Johannessen did note before the new lawsuit was filed that the regulation used to reject the original application had been repealed.
He also answered general questions about the process, noting that a clinic must fill out an application, pay a $600 fee and pass standard fire marshal and public health inspections to be considered. Clinics must also submit details about their governance and key administrative personnel, he said.
Edwards' administration is likely to face pressure against granting any new permits. In a statement this week, Ben Clapper of Louisiana Right to Life decried the Planned Parenthood application.
“From their own documents, Planned Parenthood plans to sell 2,844 abortions each year at this facility,” Clapper said, referring to Planned Parenthood's 2014 estimate of the “unmet need” for abortions in the New Orleans area.
“We are concerned that this abortion license will lead to the expansion of an abortion industry that focuses on profit over the real needs of women, thereby dramatically increasing the number of abortions in our state,” he said.
Tafolla said that, to the contrary, the application would ensure that her organization is offering comprehensive health care to area residents.
“I think it’s important that people see this is not a service to be pushed away from all other reproductive health care,” she said. “Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures that a person can have, and it needs to be safe, legal and accessible.”