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With law on hold, availability of nonsurgical abortions continues — for now

WASHINGTON – A sharp drop in surgical abortion procedures in Arizona has been offset in recent years by a corresponding rise in nonsurgical procedures — the abortion pill.

And the availability of those pills is unlikely to change for at least a month. A law that was set to take effect Wednesday, requiring that only physicians administer the abortion pill, has been put on hold until at least Aug. 22 pending the outcome of a court challenge.

The lawsuit filed by Arizona Planned Parenthood has also delayed implementation of other parts of the law that would stiffen consent requirements for women seeking abortions and would increase standards for ultrasound imaging.

But the fight over the abortion pill, and who can administer it, is the focus of the controversy.

“It’s not the same as taking a Tylenol,” said Deborah Sheasby, an attorney with the Center for Arizona Policy.

Sheasby said regulating nonsurgical procedures is a serious issue that could not have been foreseen when abortion regulations were enacted. Only surgical procedures, performed by a physician, were envisioned at the time. Since then, the Food and Drug Administration has approved abortion pills, which can currently be administered in Arizona by nurse practitioners.

The new law to make physicians the only health practitioners who can administer nonsurgical options — a pill — for abortion will improve the quality of health care for women across Arizona, Sheasby says.

But abortion-rights advocates call the law a backdoor attempt to limit access to abortions and say it will do the opposite of what its supporters claim, by making it harder to get an abortion in the state.

“In all honesty, it’s an attempt to restrict abortion services to women in Arizona,” said Dr. DeShawn Taylor, the medical director of Arizona Planned Parenthood.

Of the 14 Planned Parenthood clinics in Arizona, 10 offer abortion services. The organization, provider of abortion services to the majority of cases in the state, challenged the new law on the grounds that it would effectively eliminate access to abortion services and care for women in rural Arizona.

Bryan Howard, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood, said it would be a particular problem in Flagstaff, Prescott and Yuma, where clinics offering abortion services only have nurse practitioners on staff.

Sheasby disagrees.

“Rural women deserve the same standard of care” as women in urban areas, where physician-performed abortions are available, she said.

But finding those physicians is one of the main concerns with this legislation, from Planned Parenthood’s point of view.

“If they were going to be abortion providers, they would be providers already,” Taylor said.

Howard said the legislation is “driven by dishonest strategy” and is really intended to cut off health-care providers.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported that abortions performed in doctors’ offices in the state fell from 995 in 2003 to none in 2007. That number rebounded by 2009, when about 7 percent of the roughly 10,000 abortions performed in the state were performed in doctor’s offices.

It was also in 2009 that the number of medication-induced abortions rose to account for nearly half of all abortions in the state. Abortions in the state fell from 10,656 in 1999 to 10,045 in 2009, according to the health department. The number fluctuated in intervening years but mostly hovered around 10,000 procedures a year.

In response to the low number of doctors willing to perform abortion services and the rate of doctors retiring, Planned Parenthood offers certification and training in abortion services for medical students whose schools do not offer training.

“There is a very limited number of doctors in Arizona that will support abortion care,” Howard said.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Richard Gama is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Aug. 22.

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