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Arizona bill passes allowing abortion clinic snap inspections

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona lawmakers gave final passage on Wednesday to a bill that would allow state health authorities to conduct surprise inspections of abortion clinics without first obtaining a warrant, handing another legislative victory to abortion foes.

The Republican-backed bill, which passed the state Senate on a 17-13 vote and now goes to the governor, would remove a provision in law state requiring a judge to sign off on any surprise inspections conducted at the nine clinics in Arizona licensed to perform abortions.

No other medical facilities require such a warrant.

"This is not about pro-life or pro-choice at this point," said Senator Nancy Barto, a supporter of the bill. "What it is about is protecting the lives of women and children."

Barto, a Phoenix Republican, said that abortion clinics should be subject to the same level of oversight as other medical facilities and that requiring court-approved warrants for unannounced health inspections could delay such scrutiny.

Republican Governor Jan Brewer has five days from the time the bill is formally transmitted to her desk to veto it, sign it or do nothing and have it become law. She has not indicated what her decision will be.

If the measure is enacted, Arizona would join 10 other states that allow for warrantless surprise inspections, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit sexual health organization.

Abortion-rights advocates have said they would challenge the measure in court if it becomes law, adding to a string of abortion controls on the books in Arizona that rank among the most restrictive in the nation.

In 2012, Arizona enacted a law banning most abortions from being performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy, though a federal appeals court struck down that statute last year.

Senator Olivia Cajero Bedford, a Democrat from Tucson, said the bill, which has been pushed for by the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, was unnecessary and could lead to excessive interference with clinics, effectively restraining legal access to abortion in Arizona.

"This bill simply opens the door for abuse and does nothing to keep women safe," she said during debate on the Senate floor. "In fact, it's just another harassment tool the supporters are pushing to force a lawsuit."

Arizona lawmakers previously approved warrantless surprise inspections for abortion clinics in 1999, but a federal appeals court struck down that measure as unconstitutional.

Abortion foes argue that warrantless inspections could now pass court muster under a new set of abortion clinic regulations adopted by Arizona in 2010. Abortion rights advocates disagree.

(Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)

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