The Virginia Board of Health passed the most severe abortion clinic regulations in the nation last Thursday, which health advocates say could effectively close down all 22 abortion providers in the state.
The regulations, commissioned by the state legislature and written by the Virginia Department of Health, are largely unrelated to patient health and safety. They would treat abortion clinics as if they are hospitals if the clinics provide five or more first-trimester abortions a month and would enforce architectural design standards that will be almost impossible for most clinics to meet.
For instance, a clinic must have 5-foot-wide hallways, 8-foot-wide areas outside of procedure rooms, specific numbers of toilets and types of sinks and all of the latest requirements for air circulation flow and electrical wiring. Each clinic must also have a parking spot for every bed, despite the fact that first-trimester abortions don’t require an overnight stay. Further, Department of Health employees will be allowed to enter an abortion facility at any time without notice or identification.
Virginia Board of Health member Jim Edmundson tried to introduce a number of amendments on Thursday that would lessen the severity of the clinic restrictions and give some facilities a chance to comply. However, all but one of the amendments were rejected without a vote. For instance, he tried to distinguish between first-trimester surgical abortions and first-trimester medication abortions, so that the regulations would only apply to surgical procedures, but the amendment was not even seconded.
“The board is not even seconding proposed amendments being offered,” said Patrick Hurd, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeast Virginia, who observed the comment and voting process in Richmond on Thursday. “They’re so intimidated by the presence of the attorney general, they’re not even allowing these things to come up for a vote.”
Health advocates say they are worried that women in Virginia could lose all access to abortions as a result of the new rules, which are scheduled go into effect by Jan. 1.
“Right now, none of our facilities would be in compliance with these regulations,” said Paulette McElwain, president and CEO of the Virginia League of Planned Parenthood, which has five clinics in the state that provide abortions.
According to Patrick Hurd, his one clinic that provides abortions would have to undergo “substantial and costly renovations” to comply with the new rules.
“I’m just amazed by their unrealistic and draconian views of how we’re gonna transition from a doctor’s office that provides abortions to a surgical center,” he said. “For us, the regulations are gonna be unduly burdensome and onerous, and they don’t reflect what’s necessary for patient safety. For others, it sets the stage for the closure of some high-quality health care centers.”
Kansas passed slightly more lenient regulations earlier this year that would have shut down two out of three of the state’s clinics, but they were challenged in court and promptly blocked by a judge.
One major unintended consequence of these regulations is that if Planned Parenthood clinics and other health clinics that provide abortions are forced to shut down, they will be taking all of their other services with them, such as affordable pap smears, breast exams and birth control for low-income men and women.
State Sen. Ryan McDougle (R), the sponsor of the bill who directed the health department to draft the regulations, said the purpose of the bill “is to make sure that all medical procedures are done in a safe manner.” However, there are no other types of outpatient facilities that are being regulated as extensively as abortion providers, and according to the Virginia Department of Health, the first-trimester abortion procedure is already as safe as it possibly can be. Between 1999 and 2009, there was only one abortion-related death, compared with 11 deaths from pregnancy and childbirth in the year 2009 alone.
“It’s just utterly ridiculous, the regulations have nothing to do with patient health and safety,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. “This is just an overreach to the nth degree.”
The temporary regulations are being sent to Gov. Bob McDonnell for review. If he approves them, they will take effect on Jan. 1, 2012, for one year, after which they will be replaced by permanent regulations.