Chipping Away At Abortion Rights: Medically Unnecessary VA Clinic Rules Take Away Choice

September 16, 2011 2:46 pm ET — Kate Conway


Yesterday afternoon the Virginia Board of Health approved new restrictions on abortion clinics, finalizing measures passed by the state legislature in February.

These new regulations aren't just the common-sense standards you'd hope all medical facilities would meet. Indeed, Virginia has long required clinics that perform first-trimester abortions — a relatively minor outpatient procedure — to meet the same standards as other outpatient facilities. Instead, for no discernable medical reason, abortion providers have been singled out to be subjected many of the same strict architectural standards applied to hospitals:

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.

What this means for many of the 22 clinics currently in operation in Virginia is that they'll have to make major, costly overhauls to facilities that were already functioning safely. One Planned Parenthood facility coordinator estimated that the changes to the clinic she oversees would cost "about a hundred thousand dollars" and would "take a bit of time and effort just to make it so that we can continue providing access." For some providers the costs may be prohibitive, forcing them to shut down altogether.

And that's exactly the point of these new regulations: to throw a wrench in the wheels of reproductive health services so that women seeking to terminate their pregnancies will find themselves unable to access providers who have been forced to divert already limited funds to unnecessary construction projects. The regulations' conservative backers, steeped in rhetoric about the expense of over-regulation, know exactly what they're doing; they're not even bothering to pretend that their real motivation is the wellbeing of patients:

In a statement, the Family Foundation, an anti-abortion group that promoted the measures, called the approval, "a significant pro-life victory," and said that "Virginia's abortion centers now face the choice of either spending their profits on meeting standards or no longer doing abortions at their facilities."

Virginia's new restrictions are part of an underhanded attempt by those who have found they are unable to touch the nationwide legality of abortion to instead roll back abortion access, particularly on the state level, under the guise of increasing protection for women. But it's never really about protecting the health of women — at least, not unless the concept of "protection" is twisted into a patronizing and paternalistic sneer, in which women must be "protected" from dangers they bring upon themselves when they make choices about their own bodies.