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Morrisey to review state abortion regulations

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A women's health advocate ripped West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's pending review of state abortion regulations Monday, saying his actions were a veiled attempt to shut down abortion clinics.

"It's a political attack thinly disguised as having an interest in women's health," said Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of West Virginia Free. "If he's about women's health he should support access to care instead of trying to take it away."

Morrisey announced Monday that he's evaluating whether abortion clinics in West Virginia should be regulated.

Morrisey's review follows a lawsuit last week filed by a Charleston woman, who alleges a doctor at the Women's Health Center of West Virginia botched her abortion. The Family Policy Council of West Virginia, a Christian evangelical group that's representing the 26-year-old woman, wants the state to start strictly regulating West Virginia's two stand-alone abortion clinics.

"The merits of that lawsuit must still be resolved in court, but it does raise serious questions about how such clinics in West Virginia are inspected and reviewed to ensure patients are safe," Morrisey said in a prepared statement.

On Monday, Morrisey's office sent letters to the two abortion clinics, asking for specifics about procedures performed at the health centers and how often they receive inspections.

Morrisey said the state regulates numerous health professionals, including massage therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists.

"But abortion clinics are neither licensed nor regulated by the state," he said. "Regardless of one's position on abortion, the state needs to evaluate this basic fact."

On his campaign website last year, Morrisey said he is anti-abortion and "and will fight to protect the unborn."

Chapman Pomponio said the timing of Morrisey's review -- a week after the Family Policy Council's news conference and lawsuit -- wasn't a coincidence.

"It would seem that the attorney general of the state of West Virginia is doing the bidding of a right-wing fundamentalist organization," she said. "We knew Morrisey was going to attack abortion providers. It was just a matter of when."

Last week, Jeremiah Dys, president of the Family Policy Council, held a press conference on Charleston's West Side, just across the street from the Women's Health Center of West Virginia. Dys announced that he was representing Itai Gravely, who's suing Dr. Rodney Lee Stephens, who performs abortions at the health center.

In the lawsuit, Gravely alleges she changed her mind about having the abortion but was restrained and forced to go through with the procedure. Doctors at CAMC Women's and Children's Hospital later discovered the head of the aborted fetus in her uterus, according to the lawsuit.

At the news conference, Dys urged state lawmakers to pass laws that would require abortion clinics to be licensed, regulated and inspected.

On Monday, Dys praised Morrisey for looking into abortion regulation in West Virginia.

"We commend the attorney general for being more concerned about the safety of women than the bottom line of abortionists," Dys said. "What Dr. Stephens and Women's Health Center did to Itai Gravely cannot be swept under the rug. They exposed her to extraordinary cruelty and put her life in danger. We urge the governor to take immediate action to implement sensible abortion facility regulations in West Virginia."

Stephens and Women's Health Center have not responded to requests for comment.

West Virginia's Office of Health Facilities Licensure and Certification licenses and inspects hospitals, nursing homes and surgical centers, according to the agency's website. But West Virginia's two stand-alone abortion clinics -- the Women's Health Center and Surgicenter in Kanawha City -- aren't listed among the facilities that the agency regulates.

The state Health Care Authority requires both health centers to submit annual financial reports.

In his letters to the two health centers, Morrisey wrote, "In fact, abortion clinics are neither licensed nor regulated by the state."

According to the National Abortion Federation, abortion services are regulated across the U.S. The clinics must comply with federal and state health and safety regulations, as well as building and fire codes. In addition, doctors, nurses and other staff members who work at abortion clinics are licensed and face disciplinary action if they break rules.

Chapman Pomponio accused Morrisey of starting a "misinformation campaign detrimental to women's health."

"Abortion clinics are regulated as any other medical facility in West Virginia; to claim otherwise is absurd and false," Chapman Pomponio said. "The attorney general should not mislead the people of West Virginia."

In his letters to the Charleston clinics, Morrisey says West Virginia abortion clinic regulation is needed in the wake of the recent murder conviction of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who ran a "house of horrors" abortion clinic in Philadelphia. Gosnell snipped the spines of aborted infants with scissors, according to prosecutors. The grand jury that investigated Gosnell found that Gosnell's crimes could have been prevented if state and city agencies had enforced abortion clinic regulations, according to Morrisey's news release.

Morrisey said he has the authority to review abortion regulations because he's West Virginia's "chief legal officer ... charged with overseeing state legal policy and protecting the public interest." His actions mirror those of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who has supported bills to curb abortions by licensing and regulating abortion clinics. Cuccinelli spoke at a Morrisey campaign event last year.

The National Abortion Federation says clinics that provide elective abortions are being targeted with medically unnecessary and politically-motivated state regulations designed to put facilities out of business. The abortion rights group alleges that "Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers," or "TRAP" bills put undue burdens and requirements on abortion clinics that other health clinics don't face. Some of the regulations require specific dimensions for room sizes and hallways, or complex ventilation systems, according to the federation.

"Some mandate the number of water fountains," Chapman Pomponio said. "They impose arbitrary regulations. They want to put more and more burdens on providers in hopes of shutting them down."

In his three-page letter to West Virginia's two abortion clinics, Morrisey asks facility administrators to answer 17 questions by July 1. Among the questions:

• "At what gestational age do you refuse to perform an elective abortion procedure?"

• "What are your policies with respect to informed consent?"

• "How do your physicians determine the type and appropriate amount of anesthesia to administer to each patient?"

• What are your policies should a patient revoke consent at any point before or during the procedure?"

Morrisey said the answers the clinics provide will help him and staff attorneys, who serve as lawyers for state agencies, to "better evaluate the need for regulation."

"We look forward to the clinics' cooperation and assistance in this important endeavor," Morrisey said.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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