A Rift in the Ranks

Pro-choice lobby may be weakened by a disagreement over regulation of abortion clinics

There's a quiet civil war brewing in Arizona's pro-choice community, and I'd bet my own right to an abortion that the pro-lifers are dancing a happy jig.

It's the oldest trick in the political playbook--divide and conquer--and at the moment, the abortion-rights community is about as prone as a woman in stirrups.

If the pro-choicers don't act quickly, their movement could erode in the blink of a Legislative session, and Arizona women may have to cross state borders to get good reproductive health care.

The brouhaha is over House Bill 2706, which has passed the House and is pending the Senate, and is designed to regulate abortion clinics. The bill's got appeal--its sponsors claim it will prevent horror stories like those that occurred at the A-Z Womens Center, where patient Lou Ann Herron bled to death after an abortion performed by Dr. John Biskind in April. Two months later, Biskind attempted to perform a full-term abortion on a woman he claimed he thought was in her second trimester. The baby survived, but endured a fractured skull and permanent scarring.

Everyone agrees that butcher jobs like those alleged need to be prevented. But not everyone agrees that HB2706 is the way to do it.

Instead of the usual abortion-battle scenario--pro-choicers vs. pro-lifers--this time we have pro-choicers pitted against pro-lifers and a few pro-choicers.

I thought all abortion-rights groups were pretty much the same. Now I need a scorecard to keep the players straight.

National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League/Arizona Right to Choose is a grassroots lobbying organization. For the past three years, Arizona Right to Choose has been led by Bruce Miller, the feistiest of the pro-choice bunch.

Right to Choose opposes HB2706.
Then there are the Planned Parenthood affiliates, Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona and Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona.

The southern Arizona affiliate, based in Tucson, opposes HB2706.
The central/northern Arizona affiliate, based in Phoenix, supports it.
Both of these groups are affiliated with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and, along with advocating for women's reproductive rights, also operate clinics offering such services as birth-control counseling and abortions.

The similarities stop there. The Tucson branch has long been run by Ginger Yrun; the Phoenix branch, until recently, was directed by Gloria Feldt. Both are strong women who, over the years, developed stable constituencies. Historically, the Tucson branch has been viewed as more liberal than the Phoenix branch. And separate. Separate lobbyists, separate public-relations machines. They even laid out boundaries: Feldt's people were not allowed to speak to state legislators from Yrun's turf, and vice versa.

That has remained largely the same since Bryan Howard succeeded Felt at the central/northern affiliate two years ago.

So the Phoenix and Tucson groups haven't necessarily been close over the years. But never, to anyone's recollection, have they differed on a piece of major legislation.

Until now.
HB2706 closes a loophole in the law that allows most private medical clinics to escape regulation by the state Department of Health Services. But this bill applies only to abortion clinics, leaving unregulated scores of other clinics that offer risky--often riskier--procedures such as liposuction and plastic surgery.

That's only the first in a litany of complaints that some pro-choicers have about the bill. At the request of Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona, the group's national umbrella, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, provided a four-page memo documenting the bill's unconstitutional, unsafe and unfair provisions.

Ironically, Gloria Feldt, who used to head Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona, is now the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

She didn't respond to my inquiries on HB2706.

A recent history of Arizona abortion battles: In the Eighties, the state Capitol was a bloody mess of abortion-law skirmishes. Although the majority of Arizonans have, in the state's modern history, been staunchly pro-choice, there's been--as is so often the case--this odd parallel universe at 1900 West Washington: rabid legislators whose views don't match their constituents'. In the Eighties, it was not uncommon for a pro-life lobbyist to pull a plastic fetus from her handbag to demonstrate the horror of abortion.

That ended, blessedly, with Jane Hull, who as speaker of the House put the kibosh on abortion bills. She simply refused to hear them. Senate President John Greene, who reigned from 1993 to 1997, followed her example.

Greene left at a bad time. In 1997, as the partial-birth abortion debate was raging nationwide, the Arizona Legislature quickly passed a bill banning the procedure. This was a defeat for the pro-choice community, but the community at least stood together to oppose a bill it said was unnecessary, banning a procedure no sane doctor would perform unless the mother's life was in serious jeopardy.

A separate bill pending right now demonstrates the positive effect that pro-choice unity can have. Senate Bill 1343, which would require a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, is languishing in the House. It passed the Senate, but House Speaker Jeff Groscost doesn't have the votes to get it through--thanks to strong opposition from the pro-choicers.

And then there's HB2706.
Dr. Brian Finkel--a vocal, local abortion provider--is furious about the clinic-regulation bill. His question: "Why are they trying to micro manage one surgical procedure?"

He's even madder at Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona and the legislative leaders who invited them to the table.

"I do 20 percent of the abortions in this state, and nobody bothered to call me. That little Mr. Howard . . . he didn't call me. I invited every legislator on Groscost's committee to come to my office."

They all refused, he says. Of the legislators, Finkel says, "They're just mean-spirited religionists that want to force their peculiar beliefs on the rest of us, and I don't want any part of it."

Bruce Miller, executive director of Right to Choose, acknowledges the split in the pro-choice community, but no one else will, publicly.

In Tucson, Ginger Yrun's got her head down. Up here, all requests for information from Planned Parenthood of Central Arizona must go through the company flak, Beth Meyer.

Meyer is either disingenuous or ill-informed. Last Thursday, I asked her point blank: Are you getting complaints about your position on HB2706 from other pro-choice groups?

"Quite frankly, we have not," she replied.
How about from your members?
"That I'm aware of, no."

Hmmm. Meyer must not have seen the letter that went to Planned Parenthood members earlier last week, after the House passed HB2706. The letter, signed by the group's chairman of the board, John Martinson, and president/CEO, Bryan Howard, states, ". . .Our position on HB2706 has caused some stir among our supporters and even some Planned Parenthood affiliates. . . ."

Perhaps Howard didn't see the letter, either--even though it went out under his name--because when I finally got him on the phone and asked how his constituents are responding to his organization's support of HB2706, he replied, "Bravo!"

"There's been a very positive response to the idea that Planned Parenthood would sit at the table and participate in a crafting of this bill, as opposed to simply opposing it," he says.

Whatever.
In his letter, Howard insists HB2706 is not the slippery slope toward concession on other abortion bills. But his detractors don't see how he'll prevent that.

One observer, a former employee of both Arizona Right to Choose and Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona, says Howard's too eager to be a political player in an arena--the Arizona Legislature--where a pro-choicer can't win.

"Howard has boxed himself in a place where he's going to have to either continue or completely swing back the other way," the observer says. "And if he wants to retain the power that he has now in the Legislature, and the perception that he can be worked with and that he's not a fanatic, he's going to have to continue to work with these people, and they're going to ask more and more of him, I'm sure."

House Bill 2706 has been assigned to the Senate Family Services Committee. As of press time, it was scheduled to be heard Wednesday, March 24, at 8 a.m. The committee, chaired by pro-life conservative David Peterson, is stacked with pro-lifers. It's unlikely Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona will be able to convince the panelists to make the bill more abortion-provider friendly.

So they'll have to take their battle to the Senate floor where, by some counts, the bill will sail through as is, 25-5.

And then it will be on to the next abortion bill.

Contact Amy Silverman at 229-8443 or her online address: asilverman@newtimes.com

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