North Carolina health officials have closed three abortion clinics in the state over the past three months, citing safety violations. But an outside review of the health department’s records shows that those same types of violations didn’t lead to clinic suspensions in the past — causing some speculation that state lawmakers’ recent crusade against abortion is influencing health officials’ work.
Until this summer, North Carolina had only suspended two clinics over the course of 14 years — in 2007 and 1999. The recent crackdown is coinciding with a political environment that has reignited the debate over reproductive rights, as Gov. Pat McCrory (R) approved new abortion clinic restrictions just last week. “The sudden flurry of suspensions comes amid a highly charged political environment that has seen an unprecedented anti-abortion campaign by the state legislature over the past three years,” the News & Observer points out.
After reviewing state documents, the News & Observer found that the state’s 16 abortion clinics have been “periodically inspected” over the past decade or so, and there weren’t any more inspections than usual this year. Furthermore, the violations that were cited as the reason for closing the three clinics didn’t lead to closures in the past. Reporters concluded that “the rate of clinic closings suggests a more aggressive stance by regulators” lately.
The News & Observer investigation also uncovered emails between the health department and GOP officials that reveal “political interest in the inspections at the highest levels of state government.” Emails over the July 4th holiday weekend show that “key figures” in the legislature were notified of a clinic closure before it became public — which was around the exact same time that lawmakers introduced a sweeping package of abortion restrictions without any prior notice.
Abortion opponents in North Carolina say the recent clinic closures prove that it’s necessary to impose tighter regulations on abortion providers. But women’s health advocates say they actually show exactly the opposite, since the state’s health officials already have enough oversight without the new, stricter standards. A similar situation has unfolded in other states over the past several years — most notably in Pennsylvania, where the high-profile murder trial of illegal abortion provider Kermit Gosnell gave the state legislature the excuse to enact more stringent clinic regulations. After the rules were unnecessarily tightened, many of Pennsylvania’s safe and legal abortion clinics were forced to close.
“Some have suggested that timing of the citations is suspicious and politically motivated. It certainly deserves further inquiry,” the executive director of North Carolina’s NARAL chapter, Suzanne Buckley, said in a statement last week regarding the latest clinic suspension.