- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

RICHMOND — The House of Delegates yesterday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would hold abortion clinics to the same safety standards as ambulatory surgical centers.

Without debate, the House passed the bill 69-28 along party lines. The bill is similar to one that easily passed the House last year, but died by a tie vote in the Senate Education and Health Committee.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William County Republican, said veterinary clinics and the parking lots of Virginia abortion clinics have more regulations than the clinic operating rooms. He said he wanted to protect women using the clinics.

The bill will be referred to the same Senate committee.

Critics argue that the bill is unconstitutional because few clinics would be able to meet the tougher standards.

Last week, lawmakers held a heated partisan debate on the issue, but Republicans voted to allow the bill to move forward and get its final vote yesterday.

“Women who walk into an abortion clinic should have some guarantee this commonwealth will protect her health,” Mr. Marshall said during last week’s debate.

Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat, said he thinks Mr. Marshall’s bill is unconstitutional because it creates a substantial obstacle for women seeking abortions.

The state Department of Health has said making the architectural and technological upgrades necessary to abortion clinics would cost each clinic $500,000 to $1 million.

“We’re very disappointed that people didn’t see this bill for what it is — a bill to dramatically reduce access to abortions,” said Bennet Greenberg, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. “First-trimester abortions are among the safest procedures of all. Legislators should understand that and know the real purpose involved here.”

Mr. Greenberg’s group plans to fight the bill in the Senate committee.

“We knew we wouldn’t stop it on the House floor. We’ll be working hard on it,” he said.

The vote on Mr. Marshall’s bill came as pro-choice activists, including college students, rallied on Capitol Square for the annual Virginia Pro-Choice Alliance lobby day. Organizers said they are working to defeat more than 20 bills that aim to restrict reproductive rights.

During the morning rally, pro-choice activists carried signs that read, “Want to prevent unintended pregnancies and abortion? Support emergency contraception.” Across the street, a handful of pro-life activists held signs that displayed photographs of aborted fetuses.

Meanwhile, a group of college students urged lawmakers to reject two bills that would prohibit the availability of the “morning-after” birth-control pill at campus health centers. Mr. Marshall and Delegate Kathy Byron, Lynchburg Republican, proposed a bill that would prevent public universities in Virginia from making the “morning-after” pill available to students. The bill is pending in subcommittee.

Several college students said at a news conference that lawmakers have no business meddling in a birth-control decision that should be between a woman and her doctor. They also argued that emergency contraceptives should be readily available because of the increasing number of date rapes on campuses.

“Marshall and others have awakened a whole new generation of young women,” Mr. Greenberg said. “The ‘morning-after’ pill is a backup method of birth control, pure and simple. It’s unfortunate that methods of birth control fail and sexual assault is rampant.”

Mr. Greenberg also said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the pill, which has been available for 40 years. The morning-after pill, which can be taken up to 72 hours after intercourse, inhibits ovulation, implantation and fertilization of the woman’s egg.

But Mr. Marshall disagrees that the government should give funding to state colleges and universities that use that money to promote birth control. He has criticized distribution of cut-rate contraceptive pills to female students at Virginia’s public universities.

James Madison University’s governing board last year suspended the distribution of morning-after pills after Mr. Marshall wrote a letter to university President Linwood Rose objecting to the practice.

“JMU students had become pawns in a larger political game,” said Erin Coughlin, who helped the Student Government Association collect thousands of signatures on petitions protesting the move.

She said students were relieved when the JMU board, with five new members appointed by Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, reversed the decision last month.

Democrats are proposing the “Birth Control Protection Act,” which would clarify that contraception can’t be governed by the state’s abortion laws. The bill is pending in the Senate Education and Health Committee.

The article is based in part on wire service reports.

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