A women’s health care clinic in Fairfax City that performed more abortions than any other location in Virginia has closed, and it’s unclear whether it will reopen elsewhere.
The closure, and the clinic’s difficulty finding new space, highlight a growing issue in the abortion debate: changes in local and state regulations and standards for abortion clinics.
NOVA Women’s Healthcare was in an office building on Eaton Place, just off Route 123 near Interstate 66, since 2006. Antiabortion protesters stood outside the building daily, the clinic was sued twice in the past three years by its landlord, and it likely faced a need to upgrade or move after Virginia changed its regulations to require abortion providers to have hospital-grade facilities.
After finding a possible alternative space in March, the clinic applied for a nonresidential use permit to retrofit that space in another office building. But the permit was denied in May because officials decided parking at the building was not adequate, zoning administrator Michelle Coleman said.
NOVA chose not to seek a special exception to the parking rules from the city council, Coleman said.
The Fairfax City Council then became aware of the clinic’s attempt to relocate. On Tuesday, the council amended its zoning ordinance to require that all clinics, henceforward to be called medical care facilities, obtain a special-use permit and approval from the council. Previously, clinics were treated the same as doctor’s offices and were not required to go through the city council.
A woman who answered the phone at NOVA Women’s Healthcare said it was closed and, as a policy, staff do not speak to the media. All traces of the clinic are gone from the Eaton Place building, and court records in Fairfax indicate the clinic agreed to relinquish its space in mid-June. Attorney Anthony M. Shore, who represented the clinic in a lawsuit filed by the building’s owner, declined to comment.
Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said NOVA “was trying to relocate because they couldn’t stay where they were, because of the new regulations. . . . The fact they were forced to move, that’s a testament to the barriers these providers face.”
In 2012, NOVA performed 3,066 “induced terminations of pregnancy” according to the Virginia Department of Health, and 3,567 in 2011, by far the most in any facility in the state each of those years. Court records show NOVA was owned by Mi Yong Kim, who then sold half of her interest last year to Taehyun Kim.
Advocates on both sides of the abortion debate pointed to the closure to shore up their positions.
The shutting of NOVA is “huge,” said Troy Newman of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue, which helped stage protests outside NOVA. “Our focus has always been on the local level. In the last 15 years, we’ve closed 71 percent of all the abortion clinics in the nation.” He said the number of clinics in the United States had dropped from 2,176 in 1991 to 625 today.
Newman said Operation Rescue monitors health and safety problems associated with abortion clinics “and tell people about them. We want to see these abortionists maintain hospital privileges,” for when procedures go awry. “Let’s look at these places like what they really are, surgical facilities providing surgical procedures.”
Abortion rights advocates have long maintained that abortion clinics are safe and that their procedures are no more invasive or dangerous than dental surgery or colonoscopies. Virginia recently passed regulations requiring abortion clinics to have wider hallways and doorways, expanded parking and entrance awnings. Supporters said the changes ensure the safety of women undergoing abortions. Opponents said the measure was a veiled attempt to shutter them.
“NOVA Women’s Healthcare provided medical services to thousands of women,” Yarmosky said. “It was the largest abortion provider, but thousands of women also relied on them for birth control and other health care, and they went to NOVA because they could not afford care otherwise. Now they are left without their trusted health-care provider, in part due to politicians. It’s definitely a loss.”
NOVA faced several problems in trying to stay open on Eaton Place, according to a December 2011 lawsuit filed in Montgomery County, where the building’s owner, Eaton Place Associates, is located. The suit said the protesters’ “presence and actions constitute an unreasonable annoyance” to the owner and tenants in the building. Eaton Place said in court filings that the protesters harassed other tenants as well as NOVA employees and clients.
In addition, the filings said, NOVA clients had been seen regularly inside the building “lying down in corridors . . . and, in some instances, even vomiting.” One filing said witnesses would testify that this was a daily occurrence.
Also, the apparent transfer of ownership interest from Mi Yong Kim to Taehyun Kim, which Eaton Place alleged was a full transfer, would have constituted an illegal sublet of the fifth-floor office space, the suit said. These issues constituted violations of NOVA’s lease, Eaton Place alleged, asking that the tenant be declared in default. Eaton Place’s lawyer, Sean Roche, declined to comment.
Arguments on the suit went back and forth until December, when the two sides settled. An e-mail setting forth settlement conditions said, “The (tenant’s) option to renew the Lease (to the extent even available) would be deleted.” The conditions also stated that Eaton Place agreed not to sue NOVA again, “even if the same or similar subject matter arises or continues post-settlement,” and NOVA continued to operate in the same space.
In April, Eaton Place sued NOVA in Fairfax General District Court for failure to pay $95,000 in back rent. In June, NOVA agreed to pay the back rent and surrender the space, court records show.
At the time, Fairfax City officials were preparing an amendment to their zoning ordinance which changed the definition of a clinic from a doctor’s office to a “medical care facility,” requiring a $4,800 special-use permit, city review and council approval. Abortion rights advocates testified against the ordinance, saying it was targeted at abortion clinics; council members said it was designed to enable the council and the public to have a say on the location of all medical facilities. The new ordinance passed 4 to 2.
Dan Morse contributed to this report.