A four-year battle in Virginia over anti-abortion regulations came one step closer to ending Thursday night, as the Virginia Board of Health voted 9 to 6 approving amendments to a series of restrictions that advocates say are designed to close abortion clinics throughout the state.
Between 2011 and 2013, the Virginia Board of Health put into effect regulations that require abortion facilities to meet hospital-like construction standards, similar to other targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP) laws passed in states like Texas and Mississippi.
Second-trimester abortions already have to be performed in a hospital under Virginia law. Under the regulations, clinics performing at least five first-trimester abortions a month were re-classified as a category of hospital, subjecting them to sweeping architectural requirements. Those architectural requirements include the presence of five-foot-wide hallways, treatment rooms of a certain size and type, covered front entrances, public telephones and drinking fountains in waiting rooms, a certain number of parking spaces, and specific new ventilation systems. These new architectural requirements only applied to abortion facilities.
The regulations also required clinics to enter into patient transfer agreements with local hospitals, a common feature of TRAP laws. Although all hospitals are already required to take patients facing medical emergencies, not all hospitals enter into these transfer agreements for a variety of reasons, which can make them difficult for clinics to obtain.
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At least three clinics closed under the new requirements.
The amendments passed Thursday allow current clinics to remain open and offer services in their existing buildings and remove the transfer agreement requirement.
The regulations still require all new women’s health centers or existing clinics that decide to expand or renovate to meet the hospital-like construction standards.
“I’m thrilled the Board of Health listened to doctors and patients and agreed existing women’s health centers shouldn’t be required to meet hospital-style architectural requirements,” said Dr. Serina Floyd, a board certified obstetrician and gynecologist from Alexandria, Virginia, in a statement following the vote. “However, thousands of Virginia women still have to travel hundreds of miles to access affordable, quality reproductive care. I’m committed to continuing to work with the Commissioner of Health to end … the application of medically inappropriate construction guidelines to new women’s health centers to make sure we can expand access to health care.”
Thursday’s vote comes four months after Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring called for existing health-care facilities providing abortions be exempt from rules mandating those facilities to meet hospital-like construction standards. Earlier this year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ordered a review of those regulations, and Health Commissioner Marissa Levine announced her recommendation to amend the requirements.
“Facts have finally prevailed over politics regarding women’s health care in Virginia,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, in a statement following the vote. “We call on Virginia policymakers to continue the important work of ensuring every Virginia woman has access to the constitutionally protected health care she needs.”
TRAP laws like Virginia’s have swept through conservative states across the country. Courts in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama have blocked similar measures. A federal court is currently weighing the constitutionality of Louisiana’s laws while the United States Supreme Court is considering taking up a challenge to portions of Texas’ HB 2, the TRAP law that has closed approximately half the clinics in the state.