A controversial bill aimed at tightening state regulations on abortion clinics was “passed by” Thursday during a meeting of the Senate Health and Education Committee in Richmond. Sponsored by Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R- 37th), the bill would have set heightened health and safety standards for clinics, standards pro-choice advocates argue are unnecessary.
“I would submit that people on both sides of the abortion contest can agree on,” Cuccinelli said in his testimony. “Everything in this bill is directly related to the health and safety of women in these clinics. That is the goal.”
The bill sets 38 standards for abortion providers such as the installation of backup electrical systems, the widening of hallways enough that two stretchers could pass one another, and provisions guiding the use of anesthetics. Citing several incidents when women have come to harm during the procedure, Cuccinelli argued abortion clinics need added regulation and state supervision.
“We're seeing a significant amount of problems,” Cuccinelli said, pointing to reported incidents in Manassas, Fairfax and one at a clinic in Alexandria, where, he added, a woman died. “Some of these standards read like a statement of the obvious.”
Members of the committee, including Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-35th), questioned whether the provisions are necessary. Some, Saslaw argued, are already among the commonwealth's existing regulations governing clinics and doctor's offices. Pro-choice activists said the standards could force most of the state's clinics to shut down or raise the cost of the procedure. The bill, they said, was a smoke-screen to do just that.
“CLAIMING THIS BILL improves patient safety is dangerous and deceitful,” said David Nova, president of Planned Parenthood's Blue Ridge chapter.
Nova added that the regulations would cause many women to seek abortions at clinics outside the state and result in a stream of lawsuits from pro-life groups attempting to keep existing clinics from remaining open. The bill also came under fire from the National Organization of Women (NOW).
“This bill is inherently harmful to women,” said state president Virginia Keen. “It does not respect our intellect to make choices for ourselves.”
According to the Kaiser Family Health Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, Virginia clinics performed 24,585 legal abortions in 2001. Yet Cuccinelli argued that the dangers surrounding abortion in the commonwealth are uncertain because state health officials stopped collecting such data in 1990. State Department of Health representative Nancy Haltheimer said the procedure is safe under existing standards.
“To date, there is no factual evidence that abortions in the commonwealth are performed under unsafe conditions,” she said. “The intent of this bill does not appear to be for the health and safety of patients.”
The current system for monitoring abortion clinics, she added, is based on complaints from patients. No group of state clinic inspectors exists. State licenses for abortion providers, according to Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-31st), who sits on the committee, are similar to those granted to plastic surgeons, doctor's offices and dentists. Inspecting every facility, she said, would be a daunting task.
“They'd have to inspect every doctor's office in the state,” she said. “Doctors have a medical oath to live up to. There's a certain level of trust that they will practice in a safe and clean facility.”
On the bill itself, Whipple called it “unnecessary,” adding that its true aim is shutting the clinics down.
“Currently, only two out of the 20 clinics in this state meet these standards,” she said.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, 18 percent of the 24,585 abortions Virginia clinics performed in 2001 were performed on women between the ages of 15 and 19. Women between the ages of 20 and 24 made up 32 percent. A total of 143 were performed on women 15 or younger. Cuccinelli's bill had support from members of the Virginia Catholic Conference and from one college student who spoke before the committee. The regulations, argued Beth Krites, would protect women in clinics.
“It is simply, as I see it, a pro-women bill,” she said.
The committee also heard testimony from Arlington resident Guli Fager, who traveled to Richmond that morning because of the bill. Closing the clinics, she said, would diminish health care for women in Virginia, who also turn to them for birth control and other vital services.
“To close those clinics is asking for more abortions,” she said.
The committee voted 9-6 to “pass by” the bill indefinitely.