State shuts down abortion clinic, suspends doctor's license
By Todd Ackerman | February 14, 2014 | Updated: February 15, 2014 12:32am
Texas officials have shut down a Houston abortion clinic and suspended the license of its doctor under a new state law requiring physicians who perform the procedure to hold admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.
The Department of State Health Services has revoked the abortion license of A Affordable Women's Medical Center and the Texas Medical Board has temporarily suspended the medical license of Dr. Theodore M. Herring Jr., the facility's medical director and sole provider of abortions, the agencies announced Friday.
Herring unlawfully performed 268 abortions between Nov. 6 and Feb. 7, according to the two agencies.
The disciplinary actions against the north Houston clinic and doctor were the first taken by state authorities since the law went into effect Nov. 1. The law requires abortion clinic doctors to have privileges at a hospital that provides obstetrical or gynecological services and is within 30 miles of the facility where they provide the procedure.
The state health department Friday indefinitely revoked the facility's license. A medical board disciplinary panel Thursday temporarily suspended Herring's license. Both actions took effect immediately.
There will be follow-up hearings regarding both disciplinary actions later this month.
Neither Herring nor anyone else at A Affordable Women's Medical Center could be reached for comment Friday. Calls by the Houston Chronicle were not returned, and the clinic at 7007 North Freeway was closed.
Herring's suspension followed an unannounced Dec. 11 health department inspection of the Houston clinic. Herring "admitted he was the medical director and the sole provider of abortion procedures," the medical board news release said. "Dr. Herring also admitted that he did not have admitting privileges within 30 miles of the facility."
The health department found Herring still did not have admitting privileges and had not stopped providing abortions during a second surprise inspection of the facility Feb. 7.
Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 7, according to the department's license revocation order, Herring performed 99 abortions.
Partisans in the abortion debate reacted predictably to the news.
"This is part of a statewide effort, through medically unnecessary provisions, to drive providers out of business," said Fatimah Gifford, spokeswoman for Whole Women's Health, one of the plaintiffs in a not yet resolved legal challenge to the law. "Between clinics forced to shut down and actions like this, the law is having a huge effect on access to abortion."
But Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, praised the state agencies for "enforcing the law as the legislature intended."
"This will protect the health and safety of women seeking abortions in Texas, and we hope that this will send a message to other abortion providers that none of them are above the law," Pojman said.
Pojman said he believes there are other Texas abortion providers still not in compliance with the law. He noted that Douglas Karpen, the Houston doctor accused last year of performing late-term abortions by an anti-abortion group but cleared of wrongdoing by a Harris County grand jury, lists no admitting privileges on the medical board's website.
Herring has been a licensed doctor for almost 40 years. In 1995, a Houston man was sentenced to 12 months in federal prison for using force in an attempt to intimidate Herring. The man threw a glass bottle at a vehicle being driven by Herring, then a doctor at America's Women Clinic.
This year, Herring had submitted a "plan of correction" indicating he held an "admitting arrangement" with two other doctors and was obtaining admitting privileges. He said he anticipated a "complete date" of Aug. 31, 2014.
State officials told Herring the plan was insufficient.
Gifford said Herring's experience is more evidence "why the time frame for doctors to get privileges is so inadequate and devastating."
The admitting-privilege requirement is just one component of the law, which was the subject of rancorous debate last year. It also tightened regulations on the use of abortion-inducing drugs and banned abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.
No ruling yet
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on the constitutionality of the admitting privileges provision last month, but hasn't yet issued a ruling. In October, the court lifted a U.S. district judge's injunction barring Texas from enforcing that requirement.