HENRICO | Pro-choice advocates won a hard-fought and sudden victory Friday when the Virginia Board of Health exempted existing abortion clinics from having to comply with hospital-like construction requirements on items like hallway width and room sizes.
The construction regulations would have forced many clinics to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations in order to stay in operation.
More than 50 people testified before the board — the overwhelming majority of whom complained that the new regulations were unnecessarily burdensome, or urged members to amend them to make them less onerous. A law passed by the 2011 General Assembly directed the board to craft the regulations.
Board member H. Anna Jeng proposed an amendment to the regulations saying clinics that perform five or more first-trimester abortions per month and meet state and local building ordinances compliant with the new construction requirements unless they add on to the facility. In that case, they would have to comply with the new rules.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Allyson Tysinger advised the board that such an amendment would violate state law, positing that clinics with license applications before the state should be interpreted as “new” facilities.
But, at the behest of consumer representative James H. Edmonson, Jr., the board voted 7-4 to adopt the amendment and ignore Ms. Tysinger's advice.
“We do not need to add regulations that are going to make it more difficult for everybody else that does a good job,” said Paul Clements, who represents the nursing home industry on the board.
Some onlookers stood up and cheered after the vote was tallied, drawing a sharp rebuke from board chairman Bruce Edwards. Throughout the public comment portion of Friday's meeting, Mr. Edwards repeatedly gaveled down the crowd as they cheered on the parade of speakers testifying against the regulations.
Tarina Keene, who chairs NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, lamented during that public comment period that 20 of the state's abortion providers with license applications pending with the state “remain in limbo” because they do not know if the state will conduct inspections as part of temporary regulations currently in effect or grant them a license to remain open over the next two years. The clinics had been given two years to comply with the construction requirements of the new rules.
“These regulations have nothing to do with patient care or safety — in fact, they will jeopardize women's health,” she said, arguing that they effectively force doctors' offices to become hospitals overnight.
Stephanie Saavedra, whose mother works for the state health department, choked up when she told her story of having an abortion at a Planned Parenthood facility in 2007 — noting that the facility was conveniently located close to her home, and the staff was exceptional.
“I was relieved and I was just filled with gratitude to these people who provided this to me,” she said, her voice shaking.
Evangeline Jones with Americans United for Life argued that the facilities cannot provide an adequate, safe doctor-patient relationship, since most women who seek abortions at such clinics do not have a relationship with the staff either before or after the procedure.
“Abortion is an invasive surgical procedure that can lead to many serious medical complications,” she said.
At least 200 protestors gathered before the meeting to rally against the regulations, and some pro-choice advocates brought their paraphernalia with them into the meeting room.
One attendee held a coat hanger covered by a piece of paper that read “No Back-Alley Abortions.” Another touted a sign that read “You Can Still Amend” — a last-ditch plea to the board to soften the rules that was ultimately fulfilled. Another cardboard sign featured a rendering of female reproductive organs with shackles around the fallopian tubes.
Another audience member kept a running count of the number of doctors who came up to speak before the board against the regulations, holding up a sign reading “Doctors Against TRAP” (Targeted Regulations Against Abortion Providers) with red hash marks that gradually multiplied as the approximately 90-minute public comment period went on.
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