Clinic "safety" concerns refuel abortion debate

abortion rightsWhen New Yorkers think about threats to reproductive rights, our imaginations drift to such benighted states as Louisiana, Texas and North Carolina, which have imposed onerous restrictions on abortion providers so that abortion care is all but unavailable. But the battle is coming home.

New York, it bears reminding, once led the nation on women's issues, hosting the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, and in 1970 passing one of the first laws legalizing abortion -- three years before the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

In a report issued earlier this month, a Manhattan organization with ties to the Vatican said the state health department is failing to inspect many abortion clinics. Some haven't been inspected for a decade. "We strongly believe that everyone should agree that when abortion is legal it should be safe," Greg Pfundstein wrote in an email. He's the president of the Chiaroscuro Foundation, which obtained the health department records through a Freedom of Information lawsuit.

The foundation is affiliated with the Chiaroscuro Institute, whose president, Helen Alvaré, chairs the Catholic Women's Forum and is an adviser to the Pontifical Council of the Laity in Vatican City.

In 2012, the foundation donated more than $3 million to anti-abortion organizations around the country. But it is especially interested in New York, where it has launched a Fighting 41 campaign, referring to its calculation that "in New York City, 41 percent of all pregnancies except those which ended in miscarriage ended in abortion." The foundation has since revised the number down to 37 percent, which it says is nearly twice the national average.

Two days after the health department inspection numbers were made public, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino called on state Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah to resign. Two days after that, Shah quit.

On the job since 2011, Shah had been rumored to be unhappy at the health department because his room to make policy was cramped. Shah said he would be leaving to become senior vice president at the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan in sunny Southern California, probably at least tripling his $136,000 government salary. It's doubtful he pulled that off in two days. And if he did, I'll be downloading his podcast on motivation.

Astorino, the Westchester County executive who opposes abortion, saw an opening against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has been backing a 10-point plan called the Women's Equality Act that includes an expansion of abortion rights.

It's difficult to tell whether the 25 clinics licensed by the health department have risked women's health. But since January 2000, the department found numerous violations, including failure to ensure that the medical staff had proper credentials, reuse of one-time disposable suction tubes and failure to ensure that a nurse was present during and after abortions.

The department's rules call for an unannounced inspection at least every four years - less than the two-year circuit required for tanning salons, Chiaroscuro likes to point out. Department spokesman Bill Schwarz said the department didn't meet the four-year goal because of a heavy load: responsibility for 3,500 hospital systems, nursing homes, dialysis centers and more. However, he said, complaints or allegations of physician misconduct receive immediate response.

Wherever one stands on abortion, as of now, it's legal. These clinics must run cleanly and safely, especially if New York and other progressive states are serving as a safe zone for reproductive rights nationwide.

First published in Newsday.