Virginia's busiest abortion provider has closed after struggling to comply with 2011 legislation that imposed hospital-like standards on abortion clinics.
NOVA Womens Healthcare in Fairfax said the regulations' stricter standards, which include architectural requirements, would have forced major renovation of its rented space at 10400 Eaton Place or a relocation.
Unable to comply, the clinic shut down this month and supporters Monday said it was too soon to tell if it would reopen elsewhere.
NOVA performed 3,066 abortions last year and nearly 12,000 over the past four years, according to Virginia Health Department statistics — easily the most in the state over that period. It is one of 30 abortion providers to close nationwide this year, many of which shut down because of tighter regulations or a lack of business, said Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for the Kansas-based pro-life group Operation Rescue.
Facing the architectural limitations at its rented space, NOVA in May applied to the City of Fairfax for a permit to develop a new space but was rejected by the Office of Zoning because the property was one parking space short of meeting structural requirements.
After the application was made, the City Council in Fairfax introduced and adopted zoning regulations that would no longer place abortion providers in a category with doctor's and dentist's offices. The new regulations would define an abortion provider as a "medical care facility" and require operators to obtain special permits and council approval.
The vote last week came after the General Assembly in 2011 passed a law directing the Board of Health to promulgate hospital-like regulations for clinics performing five or more first-trimester abortions per month.
Opponents of the law claimed the regulations would force a majority of the clinics to close, while advocates said they were intended to provide the safest possible environment for women.
Under the new health department regulations, "Clinics have a year to either move to a different location or to renovate, and many will have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars widening hallways, adding awnings or installing water fountains," said Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.
NOVA representatives declined to comment, redirecting questions to Ms. Yarmosky.
Pro-choice supporters fear that a dwindling number of clinics in Virginia — 18 remain — will "reduce safe, legal abortion," Ms. Yarmosky said.
"When clinics close, women have to travel farther," she explained. "And it's not just for abortion but also for cancer screening and birth control, which is especially hard for those who can't afford private doctors or take time off work to travel to a clinic."
Others are glad that abortion clinics must now meet the same standards as any other health clinic.
"Clinics that don't follow minimum protocol endanger women [and] don't deserve to be open," Ms. Sullenger said. "People who go to them can be seriously injured. Women deserve to be treated with the same standard of care as anyone else."
She cited poorly trained employees, lack of record-keeping and general carelessness as examples of common problems at abortion centers.
The Virginia Department of Health conducted an unannounced inspection at NOVA in July 2012 and found that employees did not use general anesthesia, failed to keep adequate patient records and did not properly document drug administration.
Ms. Sullenger also said a woman who receives medication at an abortion clinic might be unable to receive medication at an emergency room or doctor's office if the doctor does not know the type or amount of drugs the patient has recently taken.
"It's just a shoddy process," she said. "NOVA has endangered lives of at least two women because of it."