Calling out the intention of new abortion regulations

We are just over one week out from the September 15 Board of Health meeting in which the Board will vote on new, draft regulations on women’s health centers in Virginia.

Since the Virginia Department of Health issued draft regulations a couple of weeks ago, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia has been working hard as part of the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women’s Health to make sure women in Virginia have continued access to vital reproductive health care. (For an explanation of the regulatory process check out one of our recent blog posts.)

Now that the regulations are public, people are starting to recognize the detrimental effects the draft regulations could have for Virginia women.

This past weekend, the editorial board at The Washington Post called out the intent of the regulations:

“[I]t is hard to imagine why groups that say they are concerned about women’s health would oppose these standards,” the Virginia Catholic Conference said in a statement.

Actually, it’s not hard to imagine at all, because the standards are not really about safety. They are unjustifiably stringent and could force abortion facilities to shut their doors.

A couple of days later, The Virginian-Pilot editorial board had a similar reaction, noting

New regulations proposed for abortion clinics across Virginia would, indeed, tighten standards for patient safety and require a higher level of care.

They would increase the scope and depth of required record-keeping. They would also reduce Virginians’ access to first-trimester abortions.

The piece in The Virginian-Pilot goes on to challenge the supporters of new regulations:

Supporters’ claims that legislation requiring the new regulations was animated by concern for patient safety aren’t fooling anyone. If that were the motive, the law would have been aimed at raising the level of care at every outpatient surgical center across the state rather than simply those that perform five or more first-trimester abortions each month.

And earlier today, Delegate Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, weighed in on the proposed regulations:

At the same time that regulations to ensure that your water is safe to drink and that air pollution be cleaned up are being challenged as being anti-business and government intrusion, stiff regulations to protect women from unspecified health damages while reducing their access to a legal medical procedure are being advanced.

To learn more about how proposed regulations could harm the health of Virginia women, check out the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women’s Health.

And be sure to join us if you can at the September Board of Health meeting in Richmond as we ask the Board only to support new regulations based in medicine, not in dangerous politics.

Understanding the regulatory process

By Kerry

In case you missed it while preparing for Hurricane Irene, the Virginia Department of Health released its much anticipated draft emergency regulations last Friday for women’s health centers providing first-trimester abortions. As NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia executive director, Tarina Keene told Mother Jones earlier this week, the proposed regulations as currently drafted will impose unduly strict, burdensome facility requirements on women’s health centers performing at least five first-trimester abortions a month:

 “It would be challenging for the majority of our facilities to continue offering first-trimester care,” Keene said. “These are designed to really cease first-trimester abortion services in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The regulations are the product of SB 924, which narrowly passed the state Senate and was signed into law by Governor McDonnell last March.

Understanding the process and timeline for these regulations is one of the most confusing aspects of this issue. When singling out women’s health in SB 924, anti-choice lawmakers in Virginia took advantage of a special “emergency regulations” process which enabled them to mandate that the new rules be implemented within 280 days. By utilizing this emergency procedure, the draft regulations can take effect while permanent regulations are still being formulated – a drawn-out process that can take over two years.

A major concern of this fast-track process is the fact that there will be very little time for the public and health care professionals to offer feedback on the regulations before the Board of Health votes on them.  With the Board set to vote during its September 15th meeting, that leaves only a few weeks for concerned citizens and advocates to submit written comments. More troubling still, there will only be one limited opportunity for oral comments before the vote, which will take place at the September 15th meeting just before the Board members consider the draft regulations.

Should the Board of Health approve the draft regulations, the new rules will still be subject to an “executive review” by Gov. McDonnell, the attorney general, the Virginia secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Planning and Budget. Depending on whether they opt for revisions, the emergency regulations will then take effect on or after January 1, 2011 and can remain in effect for a maximum of 18 months.

Fortunately, the public will have at least a bit more room to voice their concerns when it comes to the process for the permanent regulations. Here’s a rundown of how it will work:

1)      The Board of Health will file another “Notice of Intended Regulatory Action,” this time for the permanent replacement regulations, which will be followed by a 30-day comment period. As stated in Friday’s Notice of Intended Regulatory Action for the emergency regulations, the Board plans to hold one or more public hearings on the issue.

2)      After this initial comment period, the Board of Health will file proposed permanent regulations, which will then be followed by a 60-day comment period. The Board also have the opportunity to appoint a special regulatory advisory panel in order to seek out professional opinions on the matter, although, they don’t plan to do so (at least not at this time). During this extended feedback period, the Board is also free to modify the regulations, and if they do so, the public will get another 30 days to offer comments.

3)      Once the comment period is up, the Board of Health will publish a final version of the permanent regulations in the Virginia Register. The publication date marks the start of the “executive review” period for the permanent regulations during which the governor or the committees of jurisdiction in the Virginia General Assembly can file objections to the regulations. If either decides to file an objection, it will be published in the Register, and the Board of Health will then have 21 days to respond.  Should both the legislature and the governor file objections, they can stop the clock – i.e. suspend the date the regulations become effective. If no such objections are raised, the regulations will be implemented at the end of the “executive review” period.

Quite a complex process before all this is said an done. But before we even get to permanent regulations, we have a lot of work ahead with the emergency regulations.

What can you do to stand up for women’s health in light of these politically-motivated regulations that could detrimentally affect access to health care for Virginia women?