September 4, 2011

IF SOMETHING about anti-abortion advocates pressing for “safer” abortion clinics rings false to you, trust your instincts.

Virginia recently unveiled regulations to beef up oversight of the 22 clinics in the commonwealth.

“It is imperative that you contact the Board of Health and urge them to pass the regulations!” exhorts the conservative Family Foundation on its Web site.

“[I]t is hard to imagine why groups that say they are concerned about women’s health would oppose these standards,” the Virginia Catholic Conference said in a statement.

Actually, it’s not hard to imagine at all, because the standards are not really about safety. They are unjustifiably stringent and could force abortion facilities to shut their doors.

The draft regulations, released by the Virginia Department of Health on Aug. 26, apply only to abortion clinics, out of all the health facilities in the commonwealth, and cover everything from the handling of medical records to requirements for covered entrances. They would regulate these clinics as if they were outpatient surgical hospitals that perform much riskier and more invasive procedures.

And they would for the first time require existing abortion clinics to meet guidelines meant only for new construction; in the past, when adopting new regulations for physical structures, the commonwealth typically established different standards for existing structures and for new construction. Not so here, which means that abortion clinics could be forced to engage in all manner of expensive renovations that have nothing to do with safety, including the widening of hallways and the enlargement of examination rooms.

The new regulations were mandated by emergency legislation adopted by the General Assembly last winter. No justification has been given for such fast-track treatment. Abortions are among the safest of medical procedures. Virginia’s Department of Health does not keep track of complications associated with the 25,000 or so abortions performed in the commonwealth each year. But the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on reproductive health and supports legal abortion, reports that less than one-half of 1 percent of all abortions performed in the country result in complications and require follow-up medical treatment. The abortion clinics targeted by the Virginia legislation perform only first­trimester abortions — the safest of all procedures.

The 15-member Board of Health is expected to vote on the proposed regulations Sept. 15. Some of the provisions are sensible, including those governing the maintenance of health records and requiring a physician to be on the premises when a woman is put under general anesthesia — a rarity with first-trimester abortions. But it should reject the new building requirements. Regulatory shenanigans and legal sleight of hand should not be used to undermine Virginia women’s constitutionally protected rights by shuttering facilities that have been safely providing such services for decades.