Thursday, March 3, 2016

Whole Woman's Health challenges safety standards before Supreme Court

This week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging a Texas abortion law. The Texas provisions in question require that (1) abortion centers meet the same health and safety standards as other facilities that perform outpatient surgery and (2) abortion providers have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital to ensure continuity of care in the event of complications.

These commonsense measures are designed to protect the health of women. But the abortion industry is vigorously opposed to them. The lead plaintiff in this landmark Supreme Court case? Whole Woman's Health.

Whole Woman's Health (WWH) is a Texas-based chain of abortion centers that expanded to Minnesota in 2012. In fact, WWH is now the second-leading practitioner of abortion in our state (behind only Planned Parenthood).

WWH's own track record in Texas shows why the Texas law is so important—and why WWH is so committed to stopping it. Justice Samuel Alito, during oral arguments on Wednesday, mentioned that there had been "instance after instance where Whole Woman's facilities have been cited for really appalling violations when they were inspected. Holes in the floor where ­­rats could come in, the lack of any equipment to adequately sterilize instruments."

Indeed, WWH has been cited many, many, many times for health code violations. In 2007, for example, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) fined WWH of Beaumont $3,050 for five different violations.

In 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined WWH of Austin and WWH of McAllen $40,410 for illegally disposing of the remains of aborted children. In 2012, the Texas Medical Board disciplined two WWH abortionists for violating standards of patient care. They were both fined $3,000 and required to take a medical education course.

An Oct. 3, 2013, inspection of the Beaumont clinic noted that "the facility failed to provide safe and sanitary equipment in the patients' procedure rooms." Inspectors found "numerous rusty spots on the suction machines used on the patient" that had "the likelihood to cause infection," according to the DSHS report. They also found "expired drugs," unlabeled "pre-filled medication cups," and "a large hole in the cabinet flooring ... [that] had the likelihood to allow rodents to enter the facility." The DSHS concluded: "[T]he facility failed to provide a safe environment for patients and staff."

An Aug. 29, 2013, inspection of WWH of San Antonio determined that it "failed to implement and enforce acceptable environmental controls in cleaning and preparing instruments for sterilization." A Sept. 4 inspection of WWH of McAllen found that "personnel ... were not following proper sterilization procedures." In 2014 and 2015, inspectors uncovered numerous additional safety violations at WWH clinics in Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and McAllen.

Year after year, clinic after clinic, WWH never seems to get its act together. This should be especially concerning for Minnesota. Our state does not license or inspect abortion facilities at all—we have no way to determine if WWH has imported its shoddy conditions and practices into Minnesota. Current proposed legislation, H.F. 606/S.F. 616, would rectify this problem by licensing abortion centers in the same way as other outpatient surgical centers and allowing for health inspections. The Legislature will consider the bill again during the upcoming session.

In the Supreme Court case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court should uphold the Texas law. Measures to improve the safety of women are constitutionally permissible. They are also good public policy.

Whole Woman's Health must be held to basic standards—in Texas and in Minnesota.