Virginia Bill Would Shut Down 17 of the State’s 21 Abortion Clinics

Yesterday, the Virginia legislature passed a bill that will classify and regulate abortion clinics as hospitals, making the state’s laws the most restrictive in the country. Seventeen of the 21 abortion clinics in the state are likely to close under the law, according to NARAL Pro-Choice VA.

RH Reality Check explains that under the law, clinics that perform five or more first-trimester abortions will be subject to hospital standards such as a parking spot for every bed in the clinic–which is ridiculous since first-trimester abortions don’t require an overnight stay—and wider hallways so two gurneys can go through simultaneously. This essentially shuts down most of the state’s clinics, since the cost of making these changes would be impossibly high.

Even the four remaining clinics, all Planned Parenthood facilities, may not be safe from the law. Though they are set up to meet hospital standards, Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice VA, worries that “this bill is so broad, we don’t know how far they’ll go.”

Such attempts, called “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers” (TRAP) laws, not only put impossible financial pressure on clinics to meet unnecessary standards, they also paint abortions as risky and dangerous. The reality is that abortion is one of the safest procedures a woman can have—only about 1 in every 300 abortions has complications requiring hospitalization, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that only 3 women died from having legal abortions, compared to 327 who died from pregnancy complications. Regulations like the ones proposed in this bill aren’t needed in abortion clinics, which are already regulated.

In the past, the state’s predominantly pro-choice health and education committee had shot down similar bills to regulate abortion clinics. This time, Republicans got around this by adding the abortion clinic provision as a “surprise amendment” after the bill–originally related to infection control in hospitals and senior citizen homes–had already won committee approval.

The law, which Republican Governor Bob McDonnell has said he will sign, gives the state Board of Health 280 days from the law’s enactment on July 1 to regulate clinics that perform at least five first-trimester abortions a month.

Abortion-rights groups are already seeking to prevent the law from taking effect: “We’ve been talking with the Center for Reproductive Rights and ACLU-Virginia, looking at litigation possiblities,” Keene says. “Things look promising.”

Virginia can ill afford to lose its abortion clinics. According to the Guttmacher Institute, as of 2008, 85 percent of Virginia counties had no abortion provider and 54 percent of Virginia women lived in those counties.

I’m a Virginian woman–I lived in Northern Virginia until I left for college, my family lives there still, and I call the state home. I am embarrassed and furious at my state, but also unfortunately not surprised. Virginia already has harsh restrictions on abortion access. A minor in the state must receive parental consent before having an abortion, and all women must undergo a 24-hour waiting period and state-directed counseling designed to discourage an abortion. Bills like this one have been coming up for a vote and failing in the state legislature for the past eight years. Most ominously, in August, Ken Cuccinelli, state Attorney General, released his legal opinion that the Virginia Board of Health can and should regulate abortion clinics.

Yet I’m still surprised that Republicans spent valuable political capital on a parliamentary maneuver to get this bill through. Juxtaposed with the federal war against women, this shows that anti-abortion legislation is a top party priority. Keene says, “We’ve never seen anything like this in this country.” But with Virginia setting the precedent, we will probably start seeing more.

Virginia flag image from Wikimedia Commons.