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Panel rules against proposed South Bend abortion clinic

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A nonprofit group that wants to open an abortion clinic in South Bend was dealt a setback Wednesday after an Indiana health department administrative panel ruled that the agency acted properly when it denied the group a license.

“We’re obviously disappointed and it’s really indicative of the unfair licensing process that we’ve had to go through that doesn’t really apply to any other health care providers,” said Sharon Lau, Midwest advocacy director for Texas-based Whole Women’s Health Alliance. “We’re going to continue. We’re not giving up. And we will be pursuing all of our legal options.”

Supporters of the clinic say Indiana’s Republican-dominated government has stringently reduced abortion access, which they say violates rights that are guaranteed under the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. But anti-abortion opponents of the proposed facility praised the panel’s decision and said they hope it holds up when the matter likely winds up in court.

The three-member panel, which voted 2-1 to in the state’s favor, was comprised of an administrative law judge and two Republican appointees to an Indiana State Department of Health board. One was appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, the other by Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor.

No one on the panel would say what their reasoning was or how they voted, though those details will eventually be released.

Indiana’s abortion rate has plummeted in recent years as abortion facilities have shuttered.

The proposed South Bend clinic would be the first to open in roughly a decade, advocates said. But the health department rejected their application, stating that the nonprofit failed to meet requirements of having “reputable and responsible character” and that it didn’t disclose necessary information on its application.

In September, Indianapolis administrative law Judge Clare Deitchman disagreed. Deitchman said the agency failed to show the application was “incomplete or inaccurate” and issued an order that said a license should be granted.

Now that the panel has reversed Deitchman’s finding, Whole Women’s Health Alliance has 30 days to file an appeal in Marion County, officials said.

“We appreciate the findings of the appeals panel but recognize that this process is likely to continue, so we will have no further comment at this time,” health department spokeswoman Jeni O’Malley said in a statement.

During the hearing, health department lawyers argued that the proceedings turned on the question of how an “affiliate” is defined under the law. That’s because Whole Women’s Health Alliance, which is part of a broader constellation of related yet distinct clinics and contractors, refused to provide records for groups to which it is closely linked.

The state sought the records after several anti-abortion state senators raised “serious” — but unverified — health and safety concerns about some of the groups, which have overlapping business and ownership ties to Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, agency lawyers said. The records are needed to “make an informed licensing decision,” said attorney Rebecca Brelage.

Whole Women’s Health Alliance attorney Rupali Sharma said the other organizations were legally distinct entities and the nonprofit provided all records that were required under state law. She said the agency withheld a license for “no proper reason.”

Regardless of whether the decision is appealed, Tuesday’s ruling was declared a victory by anti-abortion activists — albeit one that could be short-lived.

“We will support the state department of health to the very end,” said Jackie Appleman, executive director of the St. Joseph County Right to Life. “This is showing abortion is not needed or wanted in South Bend and women have all of the resources that they need already.”