On Wednesday, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human services suspended the license of an Asheville abortion clinic, citing almost two dozen safety violations discovered in a recent inspection. This throws the fate of the state's abortion clinics further into doubt, because the suspended clinic, Femcare, was the only one in North Carolina that was also an ambulatory surgical center, the higher standard demanded by the new law Gov. Pat McCrory signed two days ago. State officials say the clinic's suspension has nothing to do with the new legislation.

Abortion rights activists were already concerned because the new law could force clinics to close unless they fit some standards of ambulatory surgical centers. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has yet to say what those standards are, however. Melissa Reed, the Vice President of public policy for Planned Parenthood, suggested that clinics make sure they are up to code now: "It is absolutely critical that every single clinic meet current regulations, and that any violations are met in a direct and speedy manner." When asked about how the new law would affect their business, three North Carolina clinics declined to comment. Another four did not return requests for comment. 

The part of the law that addresses the new standards states:

The Department is authorized to apply any requirement for the licensure of ambulatory surgical centers to the standards applicable to clinics certified by the Department to be suitable facilities for the performance of abortions. The rules shall ensure that standards for clinics certified by the Department address the on-site recovery phase of patient care at the clinic, protect patient privacy, provide quality assurance, and ensure that patients with complications receive the necessary medical attention, while not unduly restricting access.

So it's not entirely clear which new standards the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services will enforce (if any). If the DHHS decides to apply all requirements of ambulatory surgical centers to clinics, the state's 15 remaining clinics would have to undergo expensive renovations or close. Drexdal Pratt, director of DHHS' Division of Health Service Regulation, told lawmakers earlier this month that an ambulatory surgical center costs about $1 million more to build than a regular clinic.

Abortion rights activists claim that Femcare's suspension illustrates that the new law is unnecessary. Reed told local media, "I think this is continued evidence that the regulations we already have in place are working."

Femcare's safety violations included not having a resuscitator available, not having a director of nurses in charge of all nurses, not having an agreement with a licenses anesthesiologist, and not adequately mopping operating room floors. Dr. Lorraine Cummings of Femcare issued this statement on Wednesday: "We have had no patient infections using our former protocols. We expect to be in compliance soon with the required standards and will return to serving our patients as soon as possible."

Photo: Abortion rights activists protesting the new legislation earlier in July, via AP