Clinics across the state have found a loophole in Pennsylvania's new abortion law, which requires doctors to "orally" inform women of their options 24 hours in advance: The clinics have put a doctor's three-minute message on tape, enabling women simply to phone in ahead of time.
Such recordings are also used in Ohio, Nebraska, North Dakota, Utah and Kansas.Abortion rights activists said the recordings spare some women the need to travel to a clinic twice - once for counseling, and once for the abortion.
"There are obvious advantages," said Barbara Rinto, executive director of Planned Parent-hood in Cincinnati. "There are several clinics in Cincinnati, but no one else for 100 miles. . . . We have people traveling from a multistate area. It eliminates the need for extra travel."
Abortion opponents in Pennsylvania say the clinics are violating the spirit, if not the letter of the state law, which went into effect in March. They have urged the state to take legal action against those clinics.
"In my opinion, if the Legislature had wanted us to do face-to-face two-trip counseling, they would have said so," said Austin Kirkbride, spokeswoman for the Women's Suburban Clinic in Paoli. "Other portions of the law are very specific in their language."
Pennsylvania's law requires doctors to inform women of their options and the risks.
Senior Deputy Attorney General Kate L. Mershimer said the state once argued that the counseling could be done by phone.
"But I don't think tape recorders were ever discussed," she said. "How is a tape going to address a woman's concerns or answer any questions?"
Mershimer said the job of challenging the use of the recordings falls to local prosecutors and the state medical board.
In North Dakota, which also requires doctors to counsel women "orally," an appeals court ruled that the law allows telephone recordings, said Kathryn Kolbert, vice president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York.
Abortion opponents question why abortion-rights advocates, in fighting Pennsylvania's law, argued so vehemently about the burden of having to make two trips to an abortion clinic. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 upheld the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's 24-hour delay.
"Now they're saying, `We'll just do this over the phone.' What kind of a burden is that?" said Michael McMonagle, spokesman for the Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
The tapes may lift some burden from women, but they place a financial burden on clinics, said Rinto of Cincinnati's Planned Parenthood.
"There were significant start-up costs because we had to experiment with a couple different systems; that took $20,000 to $30,000," Rinto said. "We also added a full-time nurse."
Women calling the Blackwell Center can either schedule an appointment with a doctor, go to the clinic and watch an informational video, or listen to the three-minute phone message. Webber said most women prefer the message.
Excerpts from tape
Excerpts from a doctor's recorded message at the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center for Women in Philadelphia:
-"If you are pregnant you have three choices: You can continue your pregnancy to term; you can continue your pregnancy to term and give the child up for adoption; or you can choose to terminate the pregnancy. Each one of these options has a certain amount of risks.
-"Abortion is a safe option, but it is a surgical procedure.
-"Because abortion is a surgical procedure, although a very safe one, there are certain risks involved. These risks in many cases are similar to the risks in continuing a pregnancy to term. They include bleeding, infection, retained tissue from the pregnancy and, very rarely, damage to the uterus, which may require an operation.
-"Now, if you have any questions, we can schedule an appointment with you to consult further with either a physician or a counselor."