HARRISBURG - The state Senate on Wednesday approved controversial legislation to overhaul abortion clinic operations in Pennsylvania that was driven exclusively by the alleged murderous activities of a Philadelphia doctor.
The bill, which passed the House on Tuesday, cleared the Senate on a 32-18 vote and goes to Gov. Corbett for his signature.
Spokesman Kevin Harley did not respond to a question about whether Corbett would sign the bill, but a number of lawmakers said on the House and Senate floor that he would.
Legislation to tighten restrictions on 22 freestanding clinics that perform abortions and provide a range of women's health services was moved through by the Senate in the final hours before the chamber adjourned for the holiday.
Opponents say the changes mandated by the law would effectively close clinics that have operated safely and without incident for decades by requiring costly physical plant and staffing changes.
They say the law would block access to vital health services for 37,000 women who seek abortions each year as well as thousands of others who seek birth control, cancer screenings, and other tests.
During floor debate, proponents argued that the bill would protect the health and safety of women by ensuring an end to rogue abortion providers like Kermit Gosnell, who was indicted by a Philadelphia grand jury last January in the deaths of seven babies and one adult patient.
"We have a duty and obligation to protect the poorest of the poor, to have some safety and welfare in any medical procedures," Sen. Jane Orie (R., Erie) said, noting that she was a member of the antiabortion caucus. "I truly believe this was the right thing to do for women in Pennsylvania."
Critics called the bill "irresponsible" and "pandering to special interests."
Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.) said the bill was "not about Gosnell or helping women," but "would hurt people and take away rights the Supreme Court says they have."
The bill mirrors restrictive legislation in other states that is under consideration or has become law, among them South Carolina and Texas, where clinics have closed as a result.
As one indication of the level of controversy over the legislation, the sponsor of the original bill - Sen. Pat Vance (R., Cumberland), a former nurse and one of the few medical professionals in the General Assembly - voted against it.
Vance's original bill mandated inspections of freestanding facilities - those not connected to a hospital - but did not require physical plant or staffing changes that clinic operators say would be prohibitively expensive.
The bill would require clinics to comply with the same standards as ambulatory surgical facilities that perform procedures with a higher risk of complications than abortions.
The requirements will force clinics to retrofit current facilities or move into new facilities with hospital-grade elevators, bigger operating rooms, parking lots, and driveways equipped to handle an ambulance.
They also would require the clinics to have a registered nurse on staff even when not performing abortions.
Clinics would have six months to comply with the regulations. They could also apply to the state Department of Health for waivers on the requirements.
"It is a devastatingly sad day for Pennsylvanians," said Sari Stevens, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates. "When women lose access to the high-quality providers through unnecessary overregulation, we will know who to blame."
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, along with a slew of Pennsylvania hospitals, including the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, voiced opposition to the legislation.
Antiabortion groups, which lobbied for its passage, immediately issued statements praising the vote.
Michael McMonagle, president of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, said he hoped clinics would close.
"The other side claims that 17 of the 20 facilities in Pennsylvania would close down, and to be candid, I hope that's true," McMonagle said. "But I don't think that is true. We see this as a small step toward the day when all women and children in Pennsylvania are protected from abortion."
Key Bills in the Assembly
Here are some other key bills in the legislature as the House and Senate near the end of their scheduled session days in 2011:
Public schools. Gov. Corbett, the House, and the Senate were unable to agree on wide-ranging public school legislation that primarily would create taxpayer-paid vouchers to subsidize private school tuition for children of lower-income families in struggling public schools.
Gas drilling. Corbett, the House, and the Senate also were at odds over a natural-gas extraction fee.
Congressional map. The Senate State Government Committee voted, 6-5, Wednesday to approve a Republican-drawn map of Pennsylvania's 18 new congressional districts that was publicly unveiled Tuesday. The bill still requires approval from the Senate as well as the House before it can go to Corbett's desk.
Sex offenders. The Senate voted, 48-2, Wednesday to approve a bill designed to help Pennsylvania substantially comply with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006, requiring states to create a new sex-offender registration and notification system.
- Associated Press