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State health panel OKs new abortion rules; 1 rejected

MONTGOMERY (AP) — A state health panel adopted the bulk of rule changes for Alabama's abortion clinics Wednesday but decided more discussion was needed on a proposed section that would add requirements for backup physicians, a change opposed by clinics.

Adoption of the rules, which become effective in 35 days, was the culmination of a process that began after a February 2006 inspection uncovered serious violations in medical care at the Summit Medical Center in Birmingham, leading to its closure and probation at three others.

Opponents of abortion said the rule changes adopted by the State Committee of Public Health were not strong enough. Clinic officials said the amendment on backup physicians, put off for more public comment, could halt services.

Amy Appelgate, vice president of the Montgomery chapter of the National Organization for Women, said the pointed discussion prior to voting was the first she's witnessed in months of following the amendment process, indicating the magnitude of the clinic issue.

"Normally everything that gets here to this point is rubber-stamped through," she said.

The section that was not approved will be submitted to the Licensure Advisory Board for consideration in April and a public comment period will follow.

That section included a change in the requirements for covering physicians, or backup physicians who assist clinics, saying they must now be able to perform hysterectomies and other abortion-related procedures. Previously they only had to be able to arrange the necessary care.

Larry Rodick, state director of Planned Parenthood, said that requirement would cause some providers to "stop services because they wouldn't be able to find the backup doctor that meets those qualifications."

"Some of those are OBGYN procedures. Those are not something the average family or general practice physician knows how to do," he said.

"This is routinely done that a family practice doctor submits a patient to another doctor for a problem that they themselves can't do. Why is this any different?"

Alabama Alliance Against Abortion president Father James Henderson said the new rules are disappointing and don't address increased enforcement measures.

"This is not unexpected. What we saw was a watered-down approach where the state health department grudgingly gave in because of their embarrassment over Summit so finally they had to cave in and do something," he said. "We'll be back with more strong recommendations. We see that they uncovered a few problems, but we're not convinced that they're going to follow through and enforce the new rules."

Rodick and other pro-abortion advocates have said the health department's increased attention and actions following the Summit inspection have been "overreaching."

Findings of that February 2006 visit resulted in Summit's closure and inspections at the state's nine remaining clinics. Three clinics were later put on probation and health officials proposed amending the rules in an effort to improve medical care.

The section that was put off for further public comment would have rewritten a previous proposal that required all physicians associated with abortion clinics to be board eligible or board certified in obstetrics and gynecology. State Health Officer Don Williamson said his staff realized the proposal needed to be changed when they learned that not all doctors who are board certified are trained to do abortions.

The proposed new rules, which clinics do not oppose, provides ways to certify that the physician is qualified to perform abortions.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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