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Virginia moves to restrict abortion access, regulate clinics like hospitals

February 24, 2011 - 10:25 AM
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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (Photo: Associated Press)

Today, the Virginia state Senate will decide whether to severely restrict abortion access for women in the state. Over the past two decades, Virginia legislators have repeatedly failed to pass legislation that would tighten regulations on the state's abortion clinics. But this week, legislators appended a last-minute amendment to a Senate bill that would treat first-trimester abortion providers as "hospitals," subjecting them to a host of additional regulations that could put the majority of the state's abortion providers out of business. The bill, which originally intended to regulate only "infection prevention, disaster preparedness, and facility security" in hospitals and nursing homes," has a good chance of passing today. That's a problem for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

"We estimate that 17 of the 21 clinics here in the state would have to shut down due to an inability to meet the costly and unnecessary requirements placed on them," says Katherine Greenier, Director of the Patricia M. Arnold Women's Rights Project at the ACLU of Virginia. "In most facilities, it is financially impossible" to meet the regulatory burden set for the state's hospitals, Greenier says. "Even if some of these facilities could afford to remodel, the expense would likely be passed along to the client," making abortion procedures too costly for many women in the state. In effect, the law would "directly impact a woman’s ability to obtain a desired abortion."

Currently, the state's abortion clinics are already subject to state and federal regulations. The current legislation would require abortion providers to mount increased regulatory hurdles that aren't imposed on similarly medical procedures in the state. The complication rates for appendectomies and breast implantation both far outstrip complications from legal abortions (first trimester abortions are particularly safe). Yet appendices can be removed, and breasts augmented, in physicians' offices that are not subject to these hospital-level regulations.

The distinction poses an equal protection concern for the ACLU. "These laws single out abortion providers from other offices that do other types of outpatient procedures," Greenier says. "It would impose an unnecessary burden on a singled-out group." The legislation also poses privacy concerns for Greenier, who says it would constitute an undue burden on the procedure in lieu of a legitimate purpose for the regulation tightening. "The regulations have nothing to do with improving aboriton safety," Greenier says. "By reducing access to the procedure, the law is harming rather than promoting patient health."

So far, the constitutional concerns have failed to convince a majority of state senators to knock down the bill. Though Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Virginia senate, two Democratic senators who oppose abortion rights have agreed to back the bill. If the vote results in the tie, the issue will be decided by regulation supporter Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.

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