By Hilarie Meyers, Development Intern
Since the midterm elections, anti-choice politicians and activists have launched an all-out war on women’s health and reproductive rights. Federally proposed efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and Title X family planning clinics have captured the nation’s attention and aroused activists on both sides of the political debate. However, state-level attacks on women’s health have slipped by relatively unnoticed and actually much more comprehensive and much more likely to have impacts on our access to reproductive health services.
On February 24, Virginia’s legislature passed a law that would increase the state’s regulation of abortion clinics. The law, which was discreetly included as an amendment in another piece of legislation, requires clinics that provide first trimester abortions to be regulated according to the same standards as hospitals. Prior to this new law, clinics providing first trimester abortions were regulated along the same lines as offices providing other outpatient medical procedures, such as cosmetic or plastic surgery, colonoscopies, corrective eye surgery, and sterilization. In his article, “Virginia’s new abortion law to figure in 2011 elections,” Hastings Wyman explains:
While some 44 states have passed regulations on abortion clinics in the past several decades, Virginia’s new law could be the strictest, depending on the recommendations of the state’s Board of Health. Opponents contend that under the regimen, abortion-providing facilities could be required to widen halls (to accommodate two gurneys passing each other), enlarge the size of the room where the abortion procedure is performed, mandate installation of costly equipment not normally used in abortions, and even require food facilities and possibly landscaping.
The effects of the law will depend on how it’s enforced by Virginia’s Board of Health; however, the imposed regulations could force many of Virginia’s 21 abortion clinics to undergo millions of dollars worth in renovations. Katherine A. Greenier explains one possible scenario:
Seventeen of the twenty-one clinics in Virginia could shut down due to an inability to meet the largely cosmetic but very costly regulations that are likely to be imposed on them. Even those clinics that can afford to remodel to meet the new standards will be forced to pass along the expenses to their clients, thereby making abortions too costly for many women.
If these clinics were to shut down even temporarily, many women in Virginia and the greater DC-area would have to travel for hours in order to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion. By upping the costs of procedures and creating unnecessary obstacles, this law could disproportionately affect low-income and uninsured women, ultimately restricting their ability to access affordable reproductive health care in their state or area.
Although advocates of the law claim that their intention is to protect the health of women by increasing the safety of abortion procedures, evidence demonstrates that this is neither the cause nor the effect of the newly enhanced regulations. For one, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who is staunchly anti-choice, has stated that the push for more stringent regulation of abortion clinics is directly related to efforts to decrease abortion rates in the state.
For the record, the state of Virginia only allows first trimester abortions to be performed in clinics. As Greenier explains,
“First-trimester abortions remain one of the safest and most common of all in-office surgical procedures, with complication rates occurring in less than one-half of one percent of all procedures, according to the Guttmacher Institute.”
Rather than decrease abortion rates or make abortions safer, Virginia’s new law will just make it more difficult for women to access safe and legal abortions. In fact, by placing economic and geographical burdens on women’s right to choose, these new regulations may drive women to unsafe and illegal alternatives, such as self-induced abortions or procedures at the hands of unreliable but inexpensive providers.
There are better ways to lower abortion rates than to make procedures more dangerous and difficult for women to access. Virginia would be better off it invested more time and resources into enhancing its sexual education and family planning programs and ensuring that all women have access to affordable, if not free, contraceptives and reproductive health care.
Virginia is not the only state in which the health of women, children, and our communities is being threatened. In addition to the aforementioned attacks on the national level, anti-choice legislation is currently being debated in South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Virginia, Florida, Indiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio—to name a few. As an article titled “Virginia Dems ‘Bamboozled’ By Abortion Law,” from Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, explains:
[Virginia’s new law] should be a reminder that the right to choose to have an abortion is not the same thing as the ability to access a medical provider to facilitate that choice. Without reasonable access to information and medical services, women throughout the country are denied any real choice. Abortion rights advocates must continue to vigilant of these Trojan Horse measures to deny women their constitutional right to their own medical decisions.
Although it’s unclear what the effect of Virginia’s latest affront on reproductive rights will be, we can’t and won’t just sit back and watch. Do your best to follow the latest developments in Virginia, your own state, and across the country, and raise your voice when you see an attack being made.
By Hilarie Meyers, Development Intern