Abortion Rights vs. Women's Safety in Virginia

Conservatives are pushing costly business regulations they usually abhor. Is it an end run around the Constitution?


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Last April, the Virginia Board of Health approved strict new regulations for abortion providers. Unlike most similar laws, the regulations cover not just new facilities but existing ones too. Clinics have until October 2014 to comply, but a high-stakes legal challenge in the Old Dominion may change that early next year.

Senate Bill 924 reclassifies any health clinic that provides five or more first trimester abortions a month as an outpatient surgical center rather than a physician's office, which is the current classification. The law sets standards for the number of parking spaces, width of hallways, size of janitor closets, and more, all which could cost millions of dollars in renovations per facility. Abortion clinics throughout the state have said compliance costs will force many of them to close and two out of 20 abortion clinics have already shut down, citing financial burdens related to the new regs.

In a reversal of conventional positions, SB 924 has political conservatives arguing for increasing regulations on small businesses and liberals arguing against them. The bill initially passed the Democratic-controlled state senate in 2011 by a vote of 20-20 (Lieutenant Gov. Bill Bolling, a pro-life Republican cast the tie-breaking vote). Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell eventually signed it into law after numerous rounds of political back-and-forth. 

Supporters of abortion rights believe that pro-life legislators in Virginia and elsewhere around the country are using retroactive regulations to get around constitutional guarantees to abortion on demand during the first trimester of pregnancy. Defenders of the new regulations say that they are simply protecting the safety of women.

"This is really necessary to ensure that woman are treated with care consistent with their human dignity," says Mallory Quigley of the Susan B. Anthony List (SBL), a pro-life organization. A woman who chooses to have an abortion, says Quigley, should be able to do so without fearing for her health and safety. Quigley and other supporters point to the deplorable conditions in abortion clinics such as the one run by Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia. Gosnell, who ran an operation described as a "horror house," was convicted of murder and other crimes after several patients died at his clinic.

"Physicians that are practicing in Virginia have been outspoken about the lack of medical evidence that is deciding [this legislation]," says Sara Wallace-Keeshen of Falls Church Health Care Center (FCHC). Located in northern Virginia, FCHC has filed an administrative appeal against the new regulations, claiming that renovations would cost the center $2 million and potentially force them out of business. 

FCHC has had no deaths since opening in 2002, an outcome that is similar to the generally low rate of complications related to abortions performed in clinics. Indeed, since 1974 state data show only three deaths during legal abortions. For first-trimester abortions, the complication rate is 0.3 percent, throwing doubt on the safety argument.

A court date is set for April 2014.

Aprrox. 4 minutes. Produced by Amanda Winkler. Camera by Winkler and Joshua Swain. 

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