Now that the dust has settled from the surprise last minute attack on abortion rights during this year’s General Assembly session, we can look back and see what exactly happened and what we can expect next.
Anti-choice legislators who oppose access to comprehensive reproductive health care have been trying to pass legislation for nearly two decades in an effort to restrict and eliminate abortion rights in the Commonwealth. Since anti-choice Republicans won big in the last federal congressional election, taking control of the House of Representatives, there has been an all out war on reproductive rights. But the “War on Women” is not just happening on Capitol Hill.
Last August, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued a legal opinion, requested by Sen. Ralph Smith (R-Roanoke) and Del. Robert Marshall (R-Prince William) declaring the state Board of Health could issue regulations for first-trimester abortion offices. To clarify, this would single out abortion providers from other physician offices (dentists, cosmetic surgeons, LASIK surgeons, etc.) for potentially stricter regulations.
Cuccinelli’s legal opinion did not require the Board of Health to regulate, but merely said they could do so. Since August, the Board of Health has done nothing to offer new regulations, and was not showing indications that they would. With no new regulations in sight, we turned our full attention and efforts to the ever-difficult General Assembly.
Five months after Cuccinelli’s opinion, state anti-abortion legislators proposed a total of nine bills in both the House of Delegates and state Senate, which would seek to limit or eliminate access to safe, legal abortion in Virginia. We saw bills requiring all women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound, banning all private insurance carriers from offering vital abortion coverage, three separate bills granting personhood rights to zygotes and the usual TRAP –targeted regulations of abortion providers – bill. Fortunately, regardless of whether the anti-abortion bills started in the House or the Senate, the Senate Education and Health Committee defeated them one by one.
By the second to the last week of the General Assembly, pro-choice supporters felt cautiously optimistic at seeming to survive another year with no new restrictions on valuable abortion care. During this time, anti-abortion legislators were planning their last minute attack on abortion rights. As we reported recently, in the closing hours of the 2011 General Assembly session, reckless anti-choice legislators used an unrelated bill to sneak in and force through a last-minute amendment targeting abortion providers. The amendment requires the Board of Health to regulate first-trimester abortion providers as a type of “hospital.”
The bill in question, Senate bill 924, had already passed the Senate. Delegate Kathy Bryon (R-Campbell County) attached the new hospital amendment in the House. Since the Senate bill 924 had already gone through committee before the amendment was proposed, it was no longer able to go to the Senate Education and Health Committee with the new amendment. Through gimmickry, they managed to move Virginia backward regarding access to vital health care. Now the bill is on its way to anti-choice crusader Governor McDonnell, who has expressed intentions to sign the bill. Once the governor signs the bill into law, the regulatory process will begin.
After Governor McDonnell signs the bill into law, it will then go to the State Board of Health to determine the regulations for the abortion clinics. There are fifteen members of the Board of Health, eleven of whom have been appointed by ex-Governor Kaine. However, “by the end of his four-year term, McDonnell will have appointed 11 members of the board, which appears to have the power to reconsider regulations at any time.” The Board of Health has 280 days to design the new regulation for abortion clinics. In the meantime, the Board of Health will probably hold two public hearings before making any decision. There are currently a number of other states that are trying to pass similar abortion regulation bills.
Last Friday, the state Board of Health held their quarterly meeting. One item on the agenda stood out among the rest: the legislative update.
Normally, the Board of Health would take up to two years to adopt new regulations. The typical period would include several opportunities for written and oral comments from the public. The lengthy process makes sense. New regulations should not be taken lightly and both the Board and the public should have ample opportunity to consider and comment on how new rules would affect access to services.
But those opposed to abortion access are not about to give the public ample time to weigh in.
The staunchly anti-choice, anti-woman McDonnell administration and its General Assembly allies seem to be weary of any public comment derailing their assiduous, out-of-touch efforts to limit and eliminate access to safe, legal abortion in the Commonwealth. Therefore, they are requiring the Board of Health to adopt “emergency regulations,” a tactic rarely used in Virginia.
The emergency regulation process severely curtails public comment and essentially grants the governor the power to draft regulations of his choosing. Here is what we know about the process so far:
- The Board of Health will study regulations in other states and have draft regulations available on September 1, which they will only distribute to the public by request. (We will be requesting the regulations and will make them available.)
- On September 15, the Board will hold its quarterly meeting. At this meeting, members of the public will have two minutes each to comment on proposed regulations. Following comment and deliberation, the Board will vote on new regulations during this same meeting.
- Once the Board weighs public comment and votes on the new regulations, the proposed rules will be in the hands of the McDonnell administration to shape, tweak and edit with no further review or public comment necessary!
Essentially, anti-choice legislators have found a way to bulldoze through unwarranted and unnecessary regulations that could leave Virginia with fewer than five first-trimester abortion providers.
So we have a lot of work ahead. We refuse to let anti-choice zealots operate in complete secrecy in their unrelenting assault on women’s rights.