Citing everything from protecting women's health to God's opposition to the procedure, state senators gave final approval Wednesday to legislation allowing unannounced warrantless inspection of abortion clinics.
The 17-13 party-line voice vote came after extensive debate about not just whether the law is needed but whether it is really designed to harass abortion providers and their patients. The House already has approved the measure, meaning it now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer.
Brewer said Wednesday she never comments on legislation until she sees it. The governor conceded to Capitol Media Services, though, she has signed every new abortion restriction ever sent to her.
“I am pro-life and I believe that we have done a good job in Arizona,” she said.
But Cathi Herrod, president of the anti-abortion Center for Arizona Policy that helped craft HB 2284, is taking no chances. Within minutes of the final Senate vote she sent out a blast email to supporters urging them to contact Brewer and urge her signature.
Gubernatorial approval likely would toss the entire issue into federal courts – again.
In a 2004 ruling, a federal appeals court voided an identical provision. The judges said the statute’s authorization of "boundless, warrantless search of physicians’ offices by state health officials violates constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
That resulted in a consent agreement which said the state would first get a warrant.
Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said that appellate ruling is no longer binding because it was based on the fact that Arizona at that time did not regulate abortion clinics. She said all that changed when the state adopted comprehensive clinic regulations in 2010.
But Bryan Howard, president of Planned Parenthood Arizona, said the case will wind up back in court. He said HB 2284, if signed “would be in violation of the agreement and won't stand.”
Barto said the legislation is simply closing a loophole.
“Abortion clinics are the only healthcare institutions in the state that are not subject to unannounced inspection,” she said.
Instead, Barto said, state health inspectors have to first get a warrant and then coordinate with both the state Attorney General's Office and law enforcement. Barto said the one time the Department of Health Services went through that procedure it took three months.
But a spokeswoman for the health department said any delay had nothing to do with the need for the warrant.
Laura Oxley said the complaint actually came in a year ago, but she said inspectors deal with these on a priority basis. And Oxley said the allegations in that April 2013 complaint did not rise to the top of the priority list until February, when the inspection was done.
Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said the fact remains there can be unannounced inspections as long as the procedures are followed, and she said there's a reason for that warrant requirement.
“Simply stated, the public and the providers who work at and utilize abortion clinics are subject to harassment from the public just for utilizing the services there,” she said. Hobbs said opening the door to not just state health inspectors but also county health and city fire inspectors at whim endangers the privacy of both.
Barto, however, said the findings from that unannounced inspection of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Glendale show why they are necessary.
Records obtained by Capitol Media Services said health inspectors turned up evidence of staff not following procedures and of staffers lacking proper certification. That also included not getting a required test on a patient.
But Planned Parenthood, in a formal response, is contesting many of the findings.
For example, the clinic said the test at issue was performed in compliance with state regulations. It also said the organization will “fine-tune our personnel records maintenance procedures” to ensure the documents are readily available.
The state's findings have not yet been finalized.
But Wednesday's debate quickly moved from medical necessity to religion. Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, said he supports this measure because he backs anything he considers to be “pro-life.”
“It is amazing to me that we in America can give a slap in the face to God above by killing these unborn children,” he said. “Who is more defenseless than a child in the womb?”
Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, commented about being a Roman Catholic and a Republican.
“And I take great pride in that my church and my political party both stand for the sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death,” said Melvin, a Republican candidate for governor.
But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, who is running for Congress, said it would be wrong to make this about religion.
“I'm a devout Catholic, I go to church,” he said. “But I disagree with my church on this particular issue.”
He said this is instead a question of law.
“This is about a clinic that is open to serve patients,” Gallardo said. More to the point, he said that abortion is legal.
“Patients that decide to attend this clinic have the right to do so,” he said.
The heated rhetoric did not occur only inside the legislative chambers.
“We must reveal that Planned Parenthood is running from the most common sense measures and is putting profits before people's safety,” Herrod wrote in her email plea to followers.
Howard responded that ignores the fact Planned Parenthood is an 80-year-old nonprofit organization that served 45,000 patients in Arizona last year, many of them who are the working poor.
“It just demonstrates how she can't stand on the substance of her legislation,” he said.