MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey asked the state's two legal abortion clinics on Monday to answer a series of questions about their practices and their policies for ensuring patient safety as he investigates whether any regulatory changes are needed.
Morrisey's three-page letters target Women's Health Center of West Virginia and Kanawha Surgicenter, both in Charleston. They ask the providers to report back by July 1 on how often their clinics are inspected, how they ensure they're complying with the best practices and how they're affiliated with a professional providers' association, the National Abortion Federation.
"The state regulates doctors, nurses, dentists, accountants, architects, chiropractors, social workers, real estate appraisers, massage therapists, acupuncturists, barbers and cosmetologists," Morrisey said in a press release. "But abortion clinics in West Virginia are neither licensed nor regulated by the state. Regardless of one's position on abortion, the state needs to evaluate this basic fact."
Morrisey, a Republican elected last fall, cited a newspaper interview last week in which a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Resources said no specific agency regulates abortion providers or inspects the clinics.
DHHR spokeswoman Marsha Dadisman wouldn't say Monday whether the agency has a position on Morrisey's inquiry. But she said the state does not have licensing category for abortion clinics or providers, so there is no state agency specifically tasked with inspecting them.
The DHHR's Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification is the responsible licensing agency for hospitals and extended care units operated in connection with a hospital, Dadisman said in an email. "Abortion and all medical and surgical procedures performed in West Virginia are conducted in accordance with the existing medical standard of care for such procedures."
Morrisey's letters ask the clinics' physicians to explain their understanding of state abortion laws and regulations, to list the types of procedures they perform and at what stages in a pregnancy, and to explain how they educate and obtain consent from patients. The doctors are further asked to explain how they determine the appropriate amount of anesthesia and what policies they have ensuring patients' recovery.
Kanawha Surgicenter said the doctor addressed in the letter is out until July 1 and no one else could immediately comment.
A receptionist at Women's Health Center referred questions for its doctor to the executive director, but then said that person was out of the office and hung up.
Two organizations that support a woman's right to decide whether to have an abortion, WV FREE and the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, issued a statement Monday evening expressing concern about Morrisey's letter.
ACLU of West Virginia president Sara Bird asserted that it is "patently false" for Morrisey to claim that abortion clinics in West Virginia are unlicensed and unregulated. She continued, "The ACLU of West Virginia finds the Attorney General's flagrant misrepresentations to be deeply troubling."
Morrisey said his inquiry was largely prompted by a lawsuit filed against Women's Health Center and Dr. Rodney Stephens in Kanawha County Circuit Court.
Itai Gravely said an abortion was performed on her last year, even though she asked Stephens to stop because she was having severe abdominal pain. The lawsuit also claims doctor left the fetus' head inside the uterus.
Family Policy Council President Jeremy Dys said last week that Gravely had been going to the clinic for birth control, returned when she became pregnant and was persuaded by counselors to have an abortion.
The pregnancy was near the end of the first trimester; estimates ranged from 9 to 13 weeks. According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a fetus tends to be about 2 inches in length at 9 weeks and about 3 1/2 inches long at 12 weeks.
The Family Policy Council is being assisted in the lawsuit by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Christian civil rights group that also has sued an abortion doctor in Colorado.
Morrisey said the merits of the lawsuit will be resolved in court, "but it does raises serious questions about how such clinics in West Virginia are inspected and reviewed to ensure patients are safe."
Morrisey said he was also moved to act by the recent conviction of a Philadelphia abortion provider, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, for killing three babies born alive at his clinic.
A new fight over abortion laws has since been unfolding in Congress, where the House is considering legislation that would ban almost all abortions after a fetus reaches the age of 20 weeks.
But several recent court decisions have struck down similar state laws, and the GOP-backed "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" has little future in the Democratic-led Senate.