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House approves unannounced, warrantless abortion clinic inspections

House approves unannounced, warrantless abortion clinic inspections

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PHOENIX — Ignoring a virtually certain lawsuit, the state House voted Thursday to let health officials conduct unannounced inspections at abortion clinics.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said abortion clinics are the only health facilities in the state where the Department of Health Services needs either permission or a warrant. She said there is no legitimate reason for that exception.

But Rep. Sally Gonzales, D-Tucson, said the additional requirement for a warrant or prior consent is necessary to protect patient privacy. And Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said privacy is paramount because the clinics — and their patients — are the target of protests.

None of that, however, swayed supporters of HB 2284 who gave preliminary approval on a voice vote. A roll-call vote next week will send it to the Senate, and eventually the governor.

The final word, however, may belong to the courts.

Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, pointed out a federal appeals court struck down a virtually identical provision of Arizona law in 2004. He predicted this measure, if approved, will wind up back in court, with a similar result — but only after the state spends hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defend it.

When that argument failed to sway supporters, Cardenas tried a different tactic, offering an amendment saying if the state loses the legal fight, the cost will come directly out of the budgets controlled by the House speaker and Senate president, not from other taxpayer dollars.

That irked Lesko. “If there’s concern about lawsuit costs, I suggest that Mr. Cardenas and his fellow members that oppose the bill talk to Planned Parenthood and tell them not to sue, save the taxpayers lots of money,” she said.

Bryan Howard, president of Planned Parenthood Arizona, has already said he expects the issue to wind up back in court.

Central to the fight is whether the rules for inspecting abortion clinics should be different than other health facilities.

“Every single health institution in the entire state, such as hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, behavioral health centers ... with the only exception of abortion clinics, is subject to unannounced inspections, not only during their annual inspections but if a complaint is filed,” Lesko said.

But Rep. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said the measure is unnecessary. She said the legislation amounts to “scare tactics” by those who are opposed to abortions.

Potentially more significant, Steele said she fears there would be “unnecessary, unwarranted inspections” done by those who are abortion foes.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, sought to turn the issue around. Thorpe said he has heard for years by those who support legal abortion that restrictions amount to a “war on women” by the Legislature.

“It seems like there’s a war on women here,” he said. “What we’re talking about is having a clean, safe environment for this particular clinic.”

Lesko, an abortion foe, insisted her legislation has nothing to do with the right of a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy.

State health officials said they did not ask lawmakers for the change in law and have taken no position on Lesko’s legislation.

In a 2004 ruling, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said provisions for state oversight of abortion clinics violate the rights of patients and doctors. The court said the law’s authorization of “boundless, warrantless search of physicians’ offices” by state health officials violates the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Lesko acknowledged the point but argued the court ruled that way because Arizona was not regulating abortion clinics at that time. She said lawmakers have since adopted a comprehensive scheme for clinic regulations, eliminating the legal basis for that ruling.

But Howard noted the lawsuit eventually was settled with a court-approved agreement requiring a warrant, an agreement that remains in effect.

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