PHOENIX — A bill allowing warrantless, surprise inspections at Arizona abortion clinics was approved along party lines by the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives on Tuesday.
Supporters say the inspections are needed to protect women, but Democratic opponents warned it would be an invasion of women's privacy rights.
Democrats also called House Bill 2284 an attack on women that would lead to the state spending money defending a lawsuit over its constitutionality.
The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko of Peoria eliminates a requirement that the Department of Health Services obtain an administrative warrant to conduct unscheduled inspections at the state's nine licensed abortion clinics. The rule only applies to abortion facilities and stems from a 2010 lawsuit settlement.
Lesko says the bill aims to protect women from clinics that are not up to standards.
"Why would an abortion clinic, and why would Planned Parenthood fight so much against this common-sense bill," Lesko said during a floor speech. "What is it they have to hide?
"This is not a pro-life versus pro-choice issue," Lesko said. "This is about the healthiness of a facility where a woman goes to get a procedure done."
The bill is being pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a powerful social conservative group that backs anti-abortion legislation. President Cathi Herrod, who also backed a religious rights law vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer last week that civil rights groups said would allow for discrimination against gays, said the bill is about protecting women's health.
Planned Parenthood of Arizona opposes the legislation, with President Bryan Howard testifying last month that federal courts have ruled snap inspections at the state's abortion clinics are not legal because women's privacy rights are particularly at risk. He warned of huge legal costs if the bill passes.
Howard noted that Arizona is bound by the 2010 agreement that settled a federal lawsuit brought by abortion providers over an earlier effort to allow snap inspections.
But the Center for Arizona Policy argues that circumstances have changed and that the unannounced inspections could be upheld as constitutional. Republicans who voted 34-22 for the bill Tuesday embraced that argument.
"This is constitutional. This does comply with the ruling. And this is a priority for the state," said Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa.
Democrats pushed back, saying the argument that the bill was a smoke screen and that the snap inspections would lead to harassment of women seeking abortion services.
"This is really not about women's safety," said Rep. Stefanie Mach, D-Tucson. "This just opens the door to abuse. It's frustrating to me that we are concentrating on these things when we should be concentrating on" other problems, such as the state's broken child welfare system.
The health department has received five complaints concerning abortion clinic safety in the last three years and sought one warrant.
One Republican, Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, broke ranks and voted against the bill. She pushed back against members of her party who cited the conviction of a Pennsylvania abortion doctor as a reason the bill was necessary.
"It is patently unfair and wrong to assume that there is a Pennsylvania abortion clinic going on in Arizona," Brophy McGee said. "Far from it."
She also said she voted against the bill because it contained no appropriation to defend against an expected lawsuit.
Arizona abortion clinics are inspected every year as part of the licensing process, and if complaints are received regulators can ask a judge to issue a warrant for an earlier search.
The bill now heads to the Republican-led Senate for action.
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