Planned Parenthood of Arizona reeling as flood of new abortion restrictions set to become law

By Caitlin Coakley

The Daily Record Newswire

It has not been a good month for Planned Parenthood.

On Aug. 12, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled as constitutional a 2009 law that imposed a number of restrictions on abortion procedures, lifting a two-year-old injunction and opening the law for enforcement.

And the organization's strife isn't over yet. With the effective dates nearing for five abortion laws passed last session, Planned Parenthood has to make a number of changes to the way it does business in Arizona.

"What these laws are really intended to do is limit women's access to abortions," said Planned Parenthood's president and CEO Bryan Howard. "It may be positioned and labeled a women's rights bill, but that is a smokescreen."

The law that took effect under the appeals court decision dictates that only a physician, rather than a nurse practitioner, may perform a surgical abortion; that pharmacists may refuse to provide contraception, even by prescription, on religious grounds; and that women have a face-to-face consultation, rather than over the phone, with a physician 24 hours before an abortion procedure.

With the ruling, abortion services have already become significantly limited in Arizona. Only three of the 14 Planned Parenthood clinics in the state have licensed doctors on staff to perform abortions, so the rest of the clinics -- including those in Flagstaff and Yuma -- have stopped performing the procedure.

At this time, Planned Parenthood is the only listed clinic in those cities that offers abortions, according to Howard. But private physicians or gynecologists could be performing the procedures, even if they don't publicize it, he said.

The appellate decision compelled Planned Parenthood to withdraw its legal challenges against the state over the newly passed abortion laws.

"It was such an extraordinary ruling in how expansive it was that we were concerned about the direction it would give" in the other legal challenges, Howard said.

The new laws will go into effect on Sept. 12. One of them is a requirement that only a physician, rather than a nurse practitioner, may prescribe the "abortion pill" RU-486.

Another one will require that a woman be offered a chance to view an ultrasound prior to an abortion.

Howard said that the number of new laws puts Planned Parenthood in an unusually difficult position.

For years, Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers in the state were shielded from drastic new regulation by Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. Thanks to her vetoes, Howard said, many of the measures that passed the Legislature didn't make it into law.

"In 2009, with (Gov. Jan) Brewer taking office and giving a green light to the organizations and legislators that wanted to reduce access to women's health care, including abortion services, we started seeing bills being introduced, passing and being signed," he said.

Behind many of those laws is the Center for Arizona Policy, an Evangelical Christian organization that promotes legislation to limit abortions.

"I think that the past several years have been very good years for Arizona," said CAP legal counsel Deborah Sheasby. "We have seen a number of important pro-life measures go into law, and we feel like those have been very important and big strides."

The 2011 session was no exception, with five laws imposing new restrictions on abortion providers being signed into law. The most comprehensive, HB2416, sponsored by Rep. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, imposes a number of new regulations, including a requirement that a woman be given the opportunity to view an ultrasound and listen to a fetal heartbeat before an abortion and that only physicians may administer an "abortion pill."

Others prohibit abortions based on the race or sex of the fetus, and requires that a woman sign an affidavit swearing neither were her reason for the abortion. Another bill also makes any organization that provides, pays for, promotes or refers patients for abortions ineligible for the Working Poor Tax Credit.

But while the new legislation may be steps in the right direction for CAP, Sheasby said there's still more work to be done. Although the group is only in the preliminary phases of setting its 2012 legislative agenda, Sheasby said they were looking at what other states have done on pro-life issues and examining areas of the law that need improvement.

However, some of the legislators who took up the cause last year may be shifting priorities next session.

Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, sponsored the race- and sex-selection related bill last session, HB2443. But looking ahead toward next session, he said that as of now, he didn't have any pro-life bills in mind.

Instead, he said he's concentrating on the priority of job creation and improving the economy.

If CAP or another group brings an issue to his attention, he said he would be open to discussing it and potentially running a bill.

"But for myself right now, I'm focusing on the issue of the economy and jobs," he said.

The sponsor of the tax credit-related bill, Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, similarly said the priority for the Legislature next session would be the state budget and the economy, and that she was not working on any pro-life bills in the interim.

But she stressed that the commitment to the social issues, like abortion, was not going away for anyone.

"Social issues are very important to people," she said. "It goes beyond what happens in a fiscal cycle. They're about faith; they're about what people deeply believe, so they're not going to go away because they're part of our character."

Yee campaigned on a strong platform of women's safety and health issues, including more regulations for abortion providers. Although she said that the issue of jobs and the economy are at the forefront for many of her constituents, she said that they have still shown concern about the social issues.

"One thing I saw when I was going door-to-door in my community was that when I spoke with people, before they asked about the economy, before they asked about jobs, they wanted to know where I stood on family values," Yee recalled.

Since then, the tone of the calls and emails she has received hasn't changed. Constituents are primarily concerned about unemployment and the state's budget, but she said she still gets plenty of messages that are more concerned with social issues like abortion.

Right now she, like CAP, is in the process of exploring other areas of the law that she believes need to be strengthened or changed with regard to abortion.

"Of course the economy is at the forefront of our minds," she said. "But I don't see that meaning that we need to ignore the other pressing issues of the health and safety of women, or criminals on the street, or student achievement. Those things are important to our constituents as well."

Published: Mon, Sep 5, 2011