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Court ruling puts Michigan abortion law in crosshairs

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan abortion-rights advocates and opponents were at odds Monday about whether a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision tossing out regulations in Texas for clinics that perform surgical abortions could be used to challenge Michigan’s licensing law.

In 2012, the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature passed sweeping regulations requiring abortion clinics that perform more than 120 surgical abortions annually and advertise the service to be licensed, free-standing outpatient surgical centers.

The Michigan law is similar to a more narrowly written 2013 Texas statute that Lone Star State attorneys argued protected women’s health, but the nation’s highest court struck down the Texas law as having no health benefits and being an “undue burden” on abortion rights.

Anti-abortion advocates said there are enough differences between the two laws to ensure Michigan’s statute remains in place, but abortion rights supporters are optimistic a legal challenge might work.

“It certainly has laid out a standard that we might be able to use to challenge the restrictions that have been leveled at providers of abortions,” said Lori Carpentier, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan.

Planned Parenthood complied, upgrading its three surgical abortion clinics in Ann Arbor, Flint and Kalamazoo, Carpentier said.

The number of clinics performing surgical abortions in Michigan has fallen from 32 in 2012 to 19 today, said Genevieve Marnon, public affairs associate for the anti-abortion group Right to Life of Michigan.

“We did expect that because there were several clinics that had never been licensed or inspected in 40 years,” Marnon said. “The law that we put into place put out of business those bad actors.”

The rules in Texas required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and forced clinics to meet hospital-like standards for outpatient surgery.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision in favor of Texas clinics that argued the regulations were a veiled attempt to make it harder for women to get abortions in the nation’s second-most populous state.

After then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the law in 2013, half of the 40 abortion clinics in Texas closed and another 10 were projected by abortion-rights advocates to close when the law went into full effect.

“Clearly, it hasn’t shut down every clinic,” Marnon said. “There are still several clinics operating in the state of Texas.”

In the majority opinion for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the regulations are medically unnecessary and unconstitutionally limit a woman’s right to an abortion.

“There is considerable evidence in the record supporting the district court’s findings indicating that the statutory provision requiring all abortion facilities to meet all surgical center standards does not benefit patients and is not necessary,” Breyer wrote.

Michigan, Texas laws

But there are differences between the Michigan and Texas laws, Marnon said.

“I’m not really worried about our laws being challenged because it’s written differently,” Marnon said.

In Michigan, abortion opponents sharply criticized the decision.

“The High Court has made its final decision, but it is a decision that doesn’t provide the highest standard for women or their health,” said Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican who opposes abortion. “Women deserve the highest standard of care for any surgical procedure to lessen risk and reduce complications.”

The justices also struck down the Texas law requiring physicians to have hospital admitting privileges to perform abortions at licensed clinics. Michigan has no such law.

In the Lone Star State, the regulations extended to clinics that only provide women with medication to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. That requirement, Breyer wrote, “provides no benefit when complications arise in the context of an abortion produced through medication.”

“That is because, in such a case, complications would almost always arise only after the patient has left the facility,” he wrote.

On the surgical center requirement, Planned Parenthood still sees an opportunity to challenge the law being applied to future clinics, Carpentier said.

“If we were able to get that decision reversed ... that might open the door for us to ensure that access to abortion care is broader in Michigan,” she said.

In the Texas case, the law was opposed by the American Medical Association. The Michigan Health and Hospital Association declined comment Monday on the Supreme Court ruling and its applicability to Michigan.

A victory, debate

Planned Parenthood is complying with the 2012 Michigan law, but finds it to be an onerous effort to block a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy, Carpentier said.

“It was all a political effort to reduce access to abortion care,” she said.

Abortion rights advocates hailed the High Court’s decision as a victory.

“While this ruling is a major step forward, we must continue to fight changes and reforms that endanger and limit a woman’s right to health care, family planning and affordable contraception,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield said in a Monday statement.

Opponents of abortion said the Supreme Court’s ruling could fuel a debate in the presidential election over the size and scope of the federal judiciary.

“I think the Supreme Court will be an issue in the presidential election this year,” said Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party. “And the continued overreach of the judiciary into the 10th Amendment and state’s rights is an issue that should be important to all voters.”

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood

Associated Press contributed.