Pictured: Protest in Raleigh Against Senate Bill 353

CHAPEL HILL – As the bill for tighter abortion regulations awaits final approval in the N.C. Senate, there’s lingering confusion about the proposed restrictions and the impact they will have on the operation of abortion clinics.

Senate Bill 353, originally a bill concerning motorcycle safety, passed its third reading in the House last week. The bill asks the state Department of Health and Human Services to write regulations for abortion clinics “similar” to those for ambulatory surgery centers, “while not unduly restricting access.” Pro-choice activists say this will shut-down all but one clinic in the state.

WCHL reached out to the DHHS for interview requests several times with out success.

Elizabeth Nash tracks state and legislative action regarding reproductive health for the Guttmacher Institute, a national research center that seeks to advance sexual and reproductive health. She has appeared on NBC, MSNBC, and CNN. In 2009, Guttmacher was designated an official Collaborating Center for Reproductive Health by the World Health Organization and its regional office, the Pan American Health Organization.

“The Institute itself has been around for well over 40 years and is dedicated to insuring reproductive health and rights both domestically and internationally,” Nash said. “We’re probably best known for some of the research we do around these issues where we try to provide fact while policy makers are debating a reproductive health bill for example.”

Nash said the some of the requirements for ambulatory centers deal with specifications for parking lots and ventilation systems, and dimension requirements for hallways and room sizes.

“And now what they are considering is truly over-regulation,” Nash said. “The types of requirements that are now in what are called ambulatory surgery centers standards are simply above what is necessary to provide safe and sanitary abortion care.”

Backers of the bill have said the regulations will help keep women safe. Opponents of the bill argue that this will cost the centers hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades if not shutting them down all together.

“They wouldn’t make abortion clinics safer or improve patient health,” Nash said. “In fact there are already abortion regulations in place in North Carolina that pertain to abortion clinics specifically. On top of that, there are federal requirements from OSHA [Occupational Health and Safety Administration] for sanitary standards and then another federal law, CLIA [Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments], that deals with laboratory care; lab work essentially.”

Nash also explained that abortion clinic physicians have to meet the state’s licensing requirements. She said the standards for ambulatory centers are just below those for hospitals.

She said that five clinics in Pennsylvania, several in Virginia, and at least one in Tennessee have closed as a result of these types of regulations in the past two years.

“When you are closing these types of health care facilities, you are cutting out health care access for women and that is a huge issue,” Nash said. “If the legislature was really interested in reducing the abortion rate, what to do is put more money towards family planning and put more effort into comprehensive sex-education. When you ban abortion or reduce the need for abortion, you are doing nothing to reduce the need for abortion.”

Two clinics in the state were shut-down this year due to unsafe practices, one in Durham and one in Charlotte. Lawmakers on opposing sides of this bill found common ground, not about imposing tighter regulations, but that that inspections of clinics need to be increased to ensure safe practices.

More inspections would require additional funding.