Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Falls Church health care facility in a bland brick office complex is similar to most others — with a waiting room, examining rooms, counseling rooms, a storage room and bathrooms.

An oxygen tank sits in one corner. The dreaded scale stands in another.

Everywhere, there are magazines and pamphlets explaining medical procedures, patient’s rights and social-service referrals. Only a tiny straw basket filled with colorfully packaged condoms signals the procedures performed in this office.

This Falls Church medical office could be any woman’s ob-gyn office, a place where you make regular visits to get pelvic exams and reproductive prescriptions or go for an emergency checkup or procedure. Except, one day a week, this Planned Parenthood clinic also performs abortions.

However, if several bills working their way through the conservative-controlled Virginia General Assembly are passed during this legislative session, women in the Old Dominion could lose critical access to safe, legal abortions performed at clinics such as the one in Falls Church.

As thousands gathered in the nation’s capital yesterday for the 31st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, lobbyists on both sides of the issue are making their case in Richmond and Annapolis.

The Virginia bills range from what constitutes feticide to prohibiting state colleges and universities from dispensing emergency contraceptives (the morning-after pill).

Jatrice Martel Gaither, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, which covers the entire region, was at the Falls Church clinic Wednesday with Holly Blanchard, the certified nurse midwife and quality-control-assurance coordinator who monitors all regional Planned Parenthood facilities. They were joined by Judy, the staff clinician, and Samantha, the clinic manager.

Ms. Gaither maintains that the proposed Virginia laws set up “a two-tier system,” and, “even if Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, bills like the Virginia laws do essentially what a reversal of Roe would eventually do — make abortion so restrictive and inaccessible that only women with wealth and the ability to travel can terminate a pregnancy.”

Most troubling is the questionable measure Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers, called TRAP, which would place added regulations on existing clinics that are so cost-prohibitive that most would be forced to close.

In fact, 18 of 19 providers in Virginia could not meet “the onerous or unnecessary regulations” that subject them to the licensing standards of outpatient surgical hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers, Ms. Gaither said. The Falls Church clinic would have to double its current 2,500-square-foot office, which now costs them $7,000 a month to rent, in order to meet the new TRAP standards.

“They impose stringent, burdensome and unnecessary regulations unrelated to the safety of first-trimester abortion procedures … and single out abortions while ignoring the medical and surgical procedures performed routinely in physician’s offices in Virginia,” she said.

Furthermore, abortion providers already meet existing health and safety standards.

In Virginia, the serious complication rate is less than one-half of 1 percent.

Judy, the staff clinician who did not want to give her last name, said of the hundreds of procedures they provided last year, she only had to use the oxygen tank once. Besides, abortions are just a small portion of what they do.

These back-door bills aimed at curtailing women’s reproductive rights are like the back-door abortions they will give resurgence to if they are passed.

Some Northern Virginia women, she noted, already are crossing the Potomac River to obtain an abortion in Maryland because of the 24-hour waiting period imposed by the Virginia legislature last year. But women living in rural areas cannot exercise that option so readily. State and local health clinics do not provide full services to women, and there can be a full year’s waiting list for basic examinations.

“I hate the new laws Virginia has imposed,” a Virginia woman wrote to Ms. Blanchard. The woman went to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Maryland because she could not afford to take off two days from work to have an abortion in her home state — one for mandated counseling and another for the actual procedure.

But the Maryland option might be closing because the Maryland General Assembly is taking up similar measures to change regulations.

“Anyone who thinks a woman makes this decision lightly has never been in an abortion clinic,” Judy said.

She added, in no uncertain terms, that it bugs her that men are making these harsh laws that have an impact mainly on poor, black and immigrant women.

As Ms. Gaither pointed out, what woman would choose to put herself through an abortion at the minimum cost of $350 when she could have spent $25 for pills? Absolutely. When will we come to understand that a woman’s private reproductive health is primarily a medical issue not a moral issue?

“There is a serious disconnect between these bills and public health needs,” Ms. Blanchard said.

Women and girls who find themselves in sticky and sordid situations because of incest or rape must have access to adequate medical care and treatment so they don’t have to put their lives at risk should they be faced with the difficult choice to terminate an unintended pregnancy.

These back-door bills in Virginia, Maryland and Congress, like back-door abortions, must be terminated permanently.

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