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Expert for state takes aim at abortion study

Hearing on law wraps up in federal court by Linda Satter | June 30, 2018 at 5:30 a.m.

A statistics expert on Friday criticized a Texas-based scientific study and an application of that study to Arkansas that a judge partially relied on to ban the enforcement of an abortion-restricting law in Arkansas.

Tumulesh K.S. Solanky, a professor and chairman of the mathematics department at the University of New Orleans, testified as an expert witness for the state, which is defending the law, to conclude a two-day preliminary injunction hearing in the Little Rock courtroom of U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker.

Baker hopes to decide by 5 p.m. Monday, when her earlier temporary restraining order expires, whether to continue prohibiting the enforcement of the Abortion-Inducing Drugs Safety Act of 2015 through a longer-lasting preliminary injunction.

If she doesn't and the law takes effect, it will effectively prohibit pill-induced abortions in Arkansas, because it imposes what providers of pill-induced abortions say is an impossible requirement. It subjects them to civil and criminal penalties if they don't have a signed contract with a second doctor who has hospital admitting privileges and agrees to handle complications after the patient leaves the clinic.

Arkansas would be the only state in the country to outlaw pill-induced abortions, in which a patient is given one pill at a clinic and then takes a second pill 24 to 48 hours later at home to complete the abortion.

Both Planned Parenthood, which offers medication abortions at its clinics in Little Rock and Fayetteville, and Little Rock Family Planning Services, which offers medication and surgical abortions, say they have been unable to find any doctor willing to be the contract physician to fulfill what they see as an unnecessary requirement.

A doctor at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Fayetteville and the clinic director at the Family Planning clinic both testified Wednesday that they have never had to refer a pill-induced abortion patient to a hospital.

In his testimony Friday, Solanky criticized the findings of Colleen Heflin, a professor at Syracuse University in New York who is Planned Parenthood's expert on social policy and its impact on particular populations.

Heflin said the elimination of abortion services in Fayetteville, where only pill-induced abortion is provided, will prevent 235 women who otherwise would have had an abortion from obtaining one at all, and will delay access for other women. She based her findings on a 2017 study by Scott Cunningham that estimated the reduced number of abortions in Texas as a result of increased travel distances due to abortion clinic closures in that state.

A Texas law with a similar contracted-physician requirement went into effect in 2013, but the U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2016 that the law was unconstitutional because it imposed medically unnecessary abortion restrictions that placed a "substantial obstacle" in the path of women seeking abortions, creating an "undue burden" on abortion access.

Heflin said the Cunningham study "estimates the reduction in the number of abortions [in Texas] causally related to increased travel distances as a result of [abortion] clinic closures."

She said the study showed that abortion rates decreased by 15 percent to 40 percent depending on how far a woman had to travel to get an abortion.

Because of several similarities between Texas and Arkansas, she said, the same percentages would apply in Arkansas.

But Solanky testified Friday that Heflin hasn't correctly interpreted the Cunningham study, which "has lots of flaws," and said Texas has unique characteristics, such as the availability to abortion clinics across its borders in Louisiana and New Mexico, and the ease of obtaining cheap abortion pills just across the border in Mexico.

"You cannot just pick and choose a state and then pretend that whatever happened in that state will happen in Arkansas," he said.

Heflin testified later by video that it was Solanky who misapplied the Cunningham study, which has been "rigorously reviewed" by other experts in the scientific community even if it hasn't completed the official peer review process. The study is currently considered a "working paper."

Also Friday, Planned Parenthood attorney Mai Ratakonda got Solanky to admit there are errors in the written declaration he submitted to the court, in which he mixed up statistics for Arkansas and Alaska, getting their abbreviations confused. When corrected, he agreed that the conclusions actually favored Heflin's analysis.

She then pointed out another place in his written declaration in which he used two different correlation values.

"Which is correct?" she said.

"I can't tell you right now," he replied.

"So, is that a mistake?" she asked.

"That's got to be a typo," he replied.

Solanky also acknowledged that he hasn't done an analysis himself of how the 2015 law would affect women seeking abortions in Arkansas, and hasn't provided an estimate of how many women would be prevented from having an abortion if the restriction takes effect.

In the temporary restraining order Baker issued June 18, she found that a section of the 2015 law would unduly burden a "large fraction" of women seeking medication abortions in Arkansas. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dissolved an earlier injunction Baker issued in the case in 2016, saying she hadn't specifically made the "large fraction" finding.

Metro on 06/30/2018

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