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Maryland to regulate abortion clinics for first time

Five providers have been disciplined in 20 years

Denise Crowe, a 21-year-old mother, secretly sought an abortion at a clinic in Severna Park in 2006, but died on the way to the hospital after she overdosed on an anesthetic.

The clinic did not have a qualified anesthetist on staff, and employees were not trained in basic life support. The doctor who performed the procedure had a history of complaints.

In the past 20 years, five Maryland doctors have been disciplined for harming patients during abortion procedures. In each case, there was an issue involving anesthesia.

Now, supporters of a proposal to ensure that abortion clinics meet the same standards as facilities that perform outpatient surgeries say they are hopeful that deaths like Crowe’s can be prevented.

Under procedures drafted by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the state would for the first time regulate clinics that perform surgical abortions, said spokeswoman Karen Black. Facilities that offer only abortion pills, and physician’s offices that perform occasional abortions would not be affected.

The department has no listing or data on abortion clinics because they have never been regulated, Black said.

This year, lawmakers in Virginia approved regulations for abortion clinics, and officials in Pennsylvania and Kansas took similar steps.

It is estimated that about 20 sites in Maryland perform surgical abortions. Five of the sites are in Montgomery County.

“We don’t know where the sites are unless we look in the Yellow Pages,” Black said.

If the new regulations are enacted, the state would know the location of abortion clinics, inspect them and have the authority to investigate complaints against them.

The draft proposal requires that doctors ensure every patient has a physical exam, that everybody in the clinic is properly licensed and trained, and it requires clinics to have a plan for when something goes awry.

The department is reviewing public comment on the draft through Aug. 19. After that, it will review the comments and present a new draft to a joint committee of members of the House of Delegates and the state Senate, led by Del. Anne Healey (D-Dist. 22) of Hyattsville.

Healey said Thursday that she is waiting to see the final product before offering an opinion.

Fran Phillips, the department’s deputy secretary for public health, said the state has had the ability to regulate the clinics for years, but has never done so.

A push was made by abortion opponents this year in the General Assembly to put regulations on the books, but the effort fizzled when the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said it would draft them.

Phillips said the department realized the need for regulations about a year ago when a woman was severely injured during her abortion procedure at an Elkton clinic run by an unlicensed physician.

“We realized in that episode that we did not have the authority to go into that facility to look at the credentials,” she said. “It’s a very rare problem, and it’s very unusual. But we want to make sure it never happens again.”

The Maryland Catholic Conference, which opposes abortion, is reviewing the state’s proposed regulations and is generally satisfied, spokeswoman Kathy Dempsey said.

“These facilities have gone unregulated all this time,” she said, adding that there is no data on the number of abortions performed in Maryland.

Planned Parenthood of Maryland, which supports abortion rights, also is reviewing the regulations, which would affect its offices in Baltimore city and Annapolis, where surgical abortions are performed. The Maryland chapter has eight sites.

Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., which operates facilities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, has at least one site, in Silver Spring, that offers surgical abortions.

Muriel Thompson, vice president of external relations for the Maryland chapter, said the organization’s goal — and what appears to be the goal of the regulations — is to ensure that women have access to high-quality and safe abortion services.

She said the state’s Planned Parenthood offices served 36,000 women last year, 17 percent of whom had abortions.

The state’s push to regulate abortion clinics, she said, could open the door for opponents of abortion to seek an outright ban.

“There’s always concern that efforts are being made, not because people believe it’s not a safe procedure, but only because they want to see abortion access cut,” Thompson said. “And eventually, yes, I could see where there are some people on the opposition who want to see it banned.”