News Abortion

Texas’ Omnibus Anti-Abortion Law Heads to Fifth Circuit Court

Andrea Grimes

Texas' omnibus anti-abortion access law, which in part requires abortion providers to operate as mini-hospitals, will return to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals this week.

Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion access law, which in part requires abortion providers to operate as mini-hospitals, will return to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals this week. The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), which is representing a group of independent Texas abortion providers, and the Texas attorney general’s office, are set to make oral arguments before a three-judge panel on Wednesday morning.

This is the second time a federal court challenge to the multi-part HB 2 has made it to the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit, which has upheld previously challenged tenets of HB 2 as constitutional, though Texas abortion providers and reproductive justice groups say the law, passed in 2013, imposes an “undue burden” on Texans who seek legal abortion care and would shutter all but a handful of legal abortion providers in the state.

An early October 2014 ruling from the Fifth Circuit allowed Texas to fully enforce HB 2 for less than two weeks, closing all but eight legal abortion providers in Texas before a subsequent Supreme Court ruling put another temporary hold on the law and allowed eight more shuttered clinics to reopen.

There are currently 16 legal abortion providers in Texas, down from 41 in May 2013.

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HB 2 bans abortion after 20 weeks, severely restricts the prescription of medication abortions, requires abortion-providing doctors to have hospital admitting privileges and mandates that abortion facilities operate under the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers.

During Wednesday’s oral arguments, three George W. Bush-appointed appeals court judges, including judges Catherina Haynes and Jennifer Elrod, who have heard challenges to HB 2 and ruled in favor of the law, will dedicate about an hour to questioning counsel for the State of Texas and CRR.

Haynes, Elrod, and Edward Prado will then rule—in the coming weeks or months—on whether a lower Western District Court judge who heard the initial challenge to the law was correct in deeming the law unconstitutional. Ultimately, legal experts expect the law to make it all the way to the Supreme Court.

A staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights told Rewire that CRR is “pretty optimistic” about their challenge to the law, despite the fact that two of the three Fifth Circuit Court judges have upheld other parts of HB 2.

The first federal challenge to HB 2 took up the medication abortion and admitting privileges provisions of the law as they affected clinics statewide, while the most recent federal challenge takes up the admitting privileges provisions only as they apply to clinics in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso and the ambulatory surgical center provision as it affects clinics statewide.

“We’re pretty optimistic because we got such a great ruling and a great record from the court below,” said CRR staff attorney David Brown, referencing the October 2014 Western District ruling that blocked part of HB 2’s enforcement. “I think the district court was really clear in the impact it would have in terms of closing most of the abortion clinics in Texas, and the fact that there is no basis at all in protecting women’s health for this law.”

More than half of Texas’ legal abortion providers have closed their doors since anti-choice lawmakers passed HB 2 in a second special legislative session called in July 2013, following state Sen. Wendy Davis’ 13-hour filibuster of the bill that originally foiled the plans of anti-choice Texas legislators.

In the wake of HB 2, entire swaths of the state—particularly in South and West Texas—have been left without legal abortion providers for weeks and months at a time as clinics ping-pong between opening and closing, depending on the latest federal court rulings.

About a dozen reproductive justice activists with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) will make a ten-hour bus trip from South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to New Orleans to witness the Fifth Circuit proceedings and to hold a “peaceful demonstration” outside the court after oral arguments.

“The Rio Grande Valley is one of the areas hardest hit, not only by HB 2, but also by the [family planning] budget cuts in 2011,” said Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, the Texas director for policy and advocacy at NLIRH. She added that the NLIRH presence is intended “to really show Texas and the rest of the country that Texas Latinas are watching and that they’re paying attention, they’re plugged in, they’re concerned.”

If HB 2 were to go into full effect, one of the major challenges to accessing legal abortion care—in addition to day- or night-long round-trip drives across portions of the state—is interior border patrol checkpoints that prevent unauthorized Texans from traveling outside South Texas to major cities where the only abortion-providing ambulatory surgical centers are currently located.

Legislators and politicians who championed HB 2 in 2013 claimed it would increase the safety of abortion care, though mainstream medical groups warned that the law was medically unnecessary and could “jeopardize women’s health care” by making abortion harder to access, particularly for low-income and unauthorized Texans.

A December 2014 study, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, analyzed data from more than 50,000 legal abortions performed in clinics in California and found that “major complications” occurred “less than a quarter of a percent of the time, about the same frequency as colonoscopies.”

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

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