South Carolina's public health agency suspended the licenses of two of the state's three abortion clinics Friday and threatened to close them—actions that an official at one of the centers called "extreme."
The Department of Health and Environmental Control issued suspension orders for Planned Parenthood's Columbia clinic and the Greenville Women's Clinic, citing violations found during recent inspections. The violations cited at both places include incomplete records, performing an abortion sooner than 60 minutes after an ultrasound and not properly disposing of aborted fetuses. According to manifests, the fetuses were sterilized with steam and taken to a landfill, rather than incinerated or buried as required by law.
The Columbia clinic was cited for 21 violations and the Greenville clinic for six. Planned Parenthood's additional citations include having expired medicine and storing sterile and nonsterile gloves together.
The orders require Planned Parenthood to pay a $7,500 penalty and the Greenville Women's Clinic to pay $2,750.
The agency said the Charleston Women's Medical Center must correct four minor documentation errors.
"We take the findings of this investigation very seriously and will work together with each of these facilities to help get them into compliance as quickly as possible," DHEC Director Catherine Heigel said in a news release.
Jenny Black, Planned Parenthood's regional CEO, said the organization is shocked by the "extreme action." She added that DHEC found the clinic 100% in compliance with state regulations less than a year ago.
"The reported administrative and operational issues do not rise to the level of shutting down health centers," Black said. "We are reviewing all of the issues that were raised in these inspections and will of course comply with all state requests. We are deeply concerned that this investigation is politically motivated and that this political interference could prevent some women from getting high-quality care."
A message left with the Greenville Women's Clinic was not immediately returned.
It is the first time the agency has suspended an abortion clinic's license.
The orders come less than a month after Gov. Nikki Haley, who appoints all of DHEC's board members, asked the agency to investigate the three clinics' policies and practices. The request came amid public outcry following the release of secretly taped videos that show Planned Parenthood officials elsewhere discussing the collection of fetal organs for research.
Republicans across the country called for investigations.
"This is completely unacceptable," Haley said of the violations, adding she supports DHEC's action. "We will not tolerate law breaking of any kind, particularly as it relates to the callous treatment of human life."
Planned Parenthood officials have repeatedly said none of its clinics in the South Atlantic region — which includes the Carolinas, West Virginia and much of Virginia — participates in fetal tissue collection.
Attorney General Alan Wilson, who announced last month that his office is looking into Medicaid payments to the clinics, said he's reviewing DHEC's findings with state law enforcement to determine whether to pursue a criminal investigation.
The orders do not immediately close the facilities.
They don't take effect until Sept. 28. The clinics can keep their doors open by paying the penalty and reaching compliance before then. That involves providing a plan for correcting the violations and preventing their reoccurrence, as well as evidence of employee training.
The clinics could also appeal to the DHEC board and the Administrative Law Court. The orders wouldn't take effect during the review.
DHEC also issued "notices of alleged violation" to two companies that transport waste for the suspended clinics. Officials with Stericycle and MedSharps have 15 days to meet with agency staff to discuss the allegations and possible fines. Allegations include insufficient documentation of waste disposal practices and improper disposal through steam sterilization.
Republican legislators have criticized DHEC as being too lax with the abortion clinics.
A report released by the Legislative Audit Council in May found the agency hadn't consistently inspected the clinics as required by law and had imposed no penalties for violations, with the exception of an expired license.