Operators of abortion clinics in Maryland will have to apply for licenses and meet strict guidelines under new regulations being adopted by state health officials next month.
The regulations, announced by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on Friday, are meant to increase oversight of surgical abortion clinics, which have faced increased scrutiny since a botched abortion at an Elkton clinic made headlines two years ago.
The new rules significantly strengthen current law, which requires abortions to be performed by a licensed physician, but pose few other restrictions. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has long had legal authority to regulate abortion providers, but until now has not exercised that power.
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State health officials will now be able to inspect a facility and fine — or, in extreme circumstances, shut down — clinics that don't follow the rules.
"These are regulations that will strengthen the oversight of quality and safety of surgical abortion procedures offered to women in Maryland," said Frances B. Phillips, deputy director of public health services for the state health department.
Abortion clinics will be given a 120-day grace period to apply for licenses under the new regulations, which officially go into effect July 23. The licenses cost $1,500 for three years.
The new regulations are modeled after those followed by outpatient surgical facilities and require abortion clinics to meet guidelines related to anesthesia, emergency services, lab work and other areas.
"We think the rules will go a long way in protecting the safety of women," said Nancy E. Paltell, associate director of Respect for Life, a division of Maryland Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. The group is against abortions but wants high standards for clinics that provide them.
Paltell said she is pleased with the overall regulations but would have liked every facility that provides abortions to be subject to the rules. Instead, only those that routinely perform the procedure must comply. An OB-GYN who may have to perform an abortion every now and then would be exempt.
People from both sides of the abortion debate commended the health department for including all interested parties in formulating the regulations.
"We are making this procedure … as safe as it can be without prohibiting access," said Jodi Finkelstein, executive director of NARAL, Pro-Choice Maryland.
The state health department began looking at the possibility of new guidelines in 2010 after a New Jersey doctor was found to be improperly providing abortions at the American Women's Services clinic in Elkton. The doctor routinely began abortion procedures at his offices in New Jersey and completed them in Maryland, according to a 2010 New Jersey order suspending his medical license there. In one case, a patient suffered a ruptured uterus and other internal injuries during the procedure.
American Women's Services, which also runs facilities in Baltimore, Cheverly and Frederick, didn't return calls or an email seeking comment on the new regulations.
Phillips and women's groups said abortions are fairly safe in Maryland, but more oversight is needed to prevent the rarer instances when something goes wrong.
"When something happens around this issue, there's always a lot of attention, but we believe abortion is a safe and legal medical procedure and just as you have with any other medical procedure there are incidents," said Robyn Elliott, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Maryland.
Phillips said there are about 20 abortion facilities in the state that will have to be licensed. She said most are already voluntarily accredited by the National Abortion Federation and would probably have to make very few changes.