Court Hears Arguments on Challenge to Law Regulating Abortion Doctors

The constitutionality of a state law aimed at regulating Arizona's abortion providers took center stage before a federal judge Monday.

U.S. District Judge Raner Collins is considering the issue after hearing arguments from lawyers for 4 hours.

In 1999, the Legislature approved rules requiring abortion clinics to meet licensing requirements and Department of Health Services rules concerning facilities, equipment, supplies, medical screening and evaluation.

The rules also set standards for abortion procedures and recovery rooms, as well as requiring follow-up visits and an evaluation of the age of the fetus.

The law, however, isn't being enforced while the case is in court.

Pro-choice lawyers contended the law is unconstitutional for a variety of reasons, including equal protection for abortion providers and threats to patient confidentiality.

Attorneys for the state and representing Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley maintained the law was intended to protect women's health and closely resembles protocols followed by Planned Parenthood.

Virtually the only agreement among lawyers for the two sides was that Collins' ruling, which he said will be unlikely before June at earliest, probably will be appealed regardless of whoever wins.

There has been no trial in the case. Comprehensive state regulations aimed at abortion providers have been upheld by district courts in Tennessee and Texas, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld South Carolina's.

Legislation was overturned in Louisiana, and about another 18 states have more limited statutory provisions than Arizona's.

"These cases are incredibly important," said Bonnie Scott Jones, a staff attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, which filed suit here in March 2000.

"It probably seems like a lot of endless discussions of laws and procedural matters, but it's about whether women are going to be able to continue to get abortions, particularly in the context here: in private physicians' offices."

Jones argued that the state regulations would deprive doctors of using their professional medical judgment, may cause some to stop performing abortions, would violate abortion patients' privacy and may cause some of them to delay or decide against obtaining abortions.

She and four lawyers representing the defendants — the state and Romley's office — also argued over the center's contentions that the law is vague and whether it violates the Fourth Amendment in allowing DHS to come into abortion doctors' offices without warrants and take patients' records.

A related issue focused on whether doing so violates so-called informational privacy — exposing patients' identities and records to employees of the health department and of a Florida contractor that reviews ultrasound prints.

The attorneys battled as well over whether the statute unlawfully delegates to a hospital an abortion doctor's authority over patient admitting privileges.

"I submit their challenge is an act of desperation," said Kevin D. Ray, an assistant state attorney general. "The law is clearly in favor of the state."

The push for legislation came after the June 1998 death of a woman whose uterus was ruptured during a late-term abortion at the A-Z Women's Center in Phoenix.

Dr. John Biskind, 75, subsequently was convicted of manslaughter. He delivered Lou Ann Herron's full-term baby, which he had estimated at 23.6 weeks.

Biskind's clinic administrator was found guilty of negligent homicide.