Virginia Legislation May Shut Down Abortion Providers

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New state board of health regulations issued last Friday lay the groundwork for stricter regulation of abortion providers in Virginia -- a shift in policy that abortion rights advocates feel unjustly targets women's clinics with the intent of limiting women's access to abortions.

The new rules are the product of a law passed this winter that reclassified abortion clinics as hospital facilities. In accordance with the law, the state board of health has formulated specific health and safety regulations for the clinics. These rules, which are now in preliminary form, will be voted on by the board Sept. 15 and, if approved, most likely signed into law by Gov. Bob McDonnel before the year's end.

According to the new regulations, all abortion clinics and physician offices providing abortions would have to meet specific building and safety requirements -- such as five-foot wide hallways, 250-square-foot operating rooms and specific ventilation systems -- that are normally only required for outpatient hospitals. Similar regulations were passed by Kansas' legislature earlier this year but have been blocked by a federal judge.

Though the board of health cites patient safety as its primary motivation for the new laws, women's clinics affected by the new regulations argue that they are being specifically targeted by an anti-abortion rights state government that seeks to regulate abortions out of existence in Virginia.

"My initial reaction to these laws is that Governor McDonnell is pandering to his political base, not that he's concerned with the medical needs of Virginia's women and their families. We've been providing safe, up-to-code abortions for over 30 years and these facilities have served us well," says Jill Abbey, who oversees four women's clinics in Virginia that collectively provide about 3,500 abortions each year.

"Colonoscopies, dental surgery and plastic surgery are much more invasive than the abortions we provide, and they are not being asked to live up to this kind of strict regulation. That tells you right there that this is not about safety, it's about politics," Abbey says. Under the proposed regulations, she believes that none of her four clinics would be able to operate at this time.

According to Ted Miller, a spokesman for Naral Pro-Choice America, none of the 21 clinics providing abortions currently meet the rigorous standards laid out in the draft regulation.

"Abortion providers are already the most regulated health care providers in the state, and abortion remains one of the safest medical procedures," he said. "They're specifying what fabric can be used on window coverings, the ceiling height, how loud the air conditioning can be. What does this have to do with women's safety? This has to do with politics."

Women's Safety or Anti-Abortion Aims?

For the conservative Family Foundation in Virginia, these regulations constitute the "biggest pro-life victory in Virginia in a decade," says Chris Freund, vice president of policy and communications at the foundation.

The foundation has been advocating for these regulations for nearly a decade, Freund says, in response to its concerns that abortion clinics in the state are under-regulated.

"In a perfect world we would have more respect for human life and the unborn and there would be no abortions, but in the current legal framework we are limited in what we can do. We're very concerned about the safety of women who are unfortunately making the decision to have an abortion," he says, citing two malpractice cases affiliated with abortion providers the foundation is currently investigating.

Though most clinics have cited the strict building requirements as the most prohibitive and expensive aspect of the proposed legislation, Freund feels that the demands are reasonable: "The abortion industry is a $1 billion industry. Fixing their facility is something that's affordable if they choose to do it," he says.

Paulette McElwain, president and CEO of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood says that the physical requirements are in fact the only stumbling block for their centers -- all their clinics already meet or exceed the strict regulations on patient safety and privacy, inspection control, and staffing that are outlined in the regulations.

The building requirements may prove even more difficult for individual physician's offices that provide abortions as part of gynecological care, according to Rosemary Codding, the administrator of the Falls Church Healthcare Center in Virginia. Given their location in a 1950s high-rise, requiring the remodeling of everything from hallway width to ceiling height to air conditioning ducts may be unfeasible.

"I've had engineers looking at the code to figure out how we can adjust, but I don't know how we are going to manage," she says.

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