Restricting choice in Virginia by attacking abortion providers

At the last minute, reckless legislators restrict reproductive choice in Virginia by moving to regulate abortion providers as hospitals

Anti-choice legislators in the Virginia General Assembly have been trying for decades to restrict a woman’s right and ability to access abortion care in the commonwealth in any way they can. In particular, they’ve tried and failed for years to implement targeted regulation on abortion providers (or TRAP) laws, which single out providers for onerous and unnecessary restrictions in an effort to shut them down and deny women access.

This year’s legislative session was no different. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia pushed back all session long against a series of legislative attacks on reproductive freedom, which up until this week were all defeated in the Senate Committee on Education and Health. After many weeks of fighting off anti-choice legislation in the House and Senate, it seemed that our battle to protect reproductive choice this session was finished.

But this past week, as the 2011 legislative session came to a close, anti-choice politicians mounted a successful last-minute sneak attack on Virginia’s first-trimester abortion providers and the women they serve. In the House of Delegates last Monday, anti-choice Del. Kathy Byron added an amendment to SB924 – a bill dealing with hospitals and nursing homes that originally had nothing to do with abortion – in order to change the definition of “hospital” to include “facilities in which five or more first-trimester abortions per month are performed.”

The amended bill was then sent back to the state Senate, where after lengthy and heated debate and despite the quick response of many of our members and activists to contact their elected officials, the bill managed to squeak by with a 20-20 tie vote, with conservative Democrats Senator Charles Colgan (D-Prince William County) and Senator Phillip Puckett (D-Tazewell) voting to approve the new restrictions. That left it to anti-choice Lt. Governor Bill Bolling to break the tie, and the bill was passed. This legislation is now on its way to Governor McDonnell, who has already promised to sign it into law. (See the full votes here.)

Over the course of two days of debate, our choice champions in the Senate stood up to support Virginia women by decrying this insidious and devastating attack on reproductive care. We thank all our allies in the Senate who voted against this anti-choice legislation (see votes listed here), but we want to extend special gratitude to the following senators who spoke passionately on the floor about this bill’s true motives and the devastating impact it could have on reproductive choice in Virginia.

Be sure to send a quick thank-you note to the senators who voted “no”, especially if you are a constituent, thanking them for voting to protect reproductive freedom and healthcare!

If your senator is one of the 20 who voted in favor this egregious legislation, they also need to hear from you. Tell them that attacking women’s reproductive rights under the guise of protecting women’s health is not acceptable.

“If anybody thinks this is about women’s health, get a life…”

So what does this all mean?

This new law will allow the state’s Board of Health to force first-trimester abortion providers to conform to medically unnecessary hospital-level regulations in order to stay open. By making abortion providers jump through onerous regulatory hoops not required of similar doctor’s offices providing outpatient surgeries, anti-choice politicians hope they can shut down as many providers as possible and drastically reduce women’s access to safe, legal abortion care in Virginia.

Throughout the floor debate, anti-choice legislators attempted to claim the bill was about protecting women’s health and safety. They made inaccurate statements to imply that Virginia’s abortion providers are currently unregulated or unsafe, which we know is completely untrue.  First-trimester abortion providers in Virginia already adhere to regulations from the Board of Health Professions, the Board of Medicine and other licensing and regulatory bodies. First-trimester abortion remains one of the safest medical procedures a woman can undergo, similar to or safer than comparable office-based procedures such as colonoscopy or cosmetic surgery.

As NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s Executive Director Tarina Keene noted, “”This is not about safety for women. This is about ideology, and this is about politics…The women of the commonwealth are going to be the ones left to suffer.” In the words of Majority Leader Sen. Richard Saslaw, “If anybody thinks this debate is about women’s health, get a life. The only physician we have in this body has said what nonsense this is.”

At a time when Virginians are concerned about jobs, education, transportation and health care, our out-of-touch General Assembly has voted to remove women’s access to basic, vital and potentially life-saving abortion care. The passage of such far-reaching legislation will make Virginia the first state in the country requiring first-trimester abortions take place in a hospital. It could even make abortion providers adhere to hospital-like architectural standards. The rules and regulations for hospitals (including size of parking lot, hallways, elevator doors and other architectural requirements) would require massive, cost-prohibitive structural changes for most doctor’s offices that provide abortion. Most of Virginia’s providers could not afford the cost of $1.5 and $2.0 million in changes and could be forced to close. This would also leave Virginia women with less access to other valuable services besides abortion as well, since many of these clinics also offer basic family planning services, gynecological exams and other reproductive health care.

What’s next?

Senator Howell summed up the tone of the day by stating, “This is a sad, sad day for Virginia women and our families.” But luckily, this fight is not over with the passage of this legislation.  It will now be up to the State Board of Health to issue new regulations regarding abortion providers, which means we will have a chance during the public comment period to ensure that abortion providers and the women they serve are not unfairly singled out to serve an ideological agenda.

The passage of this legislation is also another example of why this fall’s election season is so critical for the future of reproductive freedom in Virginia. Yesterday reminded us too keenly of the fact that we do not have a pro-choice majority in either the House of Delegates or the Senate, and that the executive branch is decidedly anti-choice. This fall, with all 140 General Assembly seats up for reelection, we must protect our legislative allies and work to elect more legislators who will stand up for reproductive freedom. If we don’t, this legislation will just be the tip of the iceberg.

We will have a lot of work to do in the coming months to fight back against this attack on abortion access and gear up for this fall’s elections – and we will need your help every step of the way. Keep up with us on the web, through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and right here on our blog. Be sure to sign up for our Choice Action Network alerts so you’ll get the latest updates about reproductive rights in the Commonwealth and what you can do. And if you can, please consider making a contribution to support NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and enable us to continue this fight.  We can’t do it without you.

3 thoughts on “Restricting choice in Virginia by attacking abortion providers

  1. Pingback: Virginia Congressmen stand up to attacks on women’s health « NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

  2. Pingback: What will you do now Governor McDonnell? « NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

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