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Virginia’s assault on abortion claims a victim

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AT ABORTION clinics, the presence of awnings, the width of doorways and the dimensions of janitorial closets have little to do with the health of patients. But by requiring that Virginia’s 20 abortion clinics conform to strict licensing standards designed for new hospitals, the state has ensured that many or most of them will be driven out of business in the coming months.

Just days after the state Board of Health approved the regulationsthis month, under pressure from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), they claimed their first victim. Hillcrest Clinic in Norfolk, which for 40 years had provided reproductive health services, including abortions, closed last weekend.

Hillcrest was partly a victim of its own success in providing women with ready access to birth control. Like most other clinics around the state, it saw demand for abortions dwindle as more women took advantage of options to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Still, even after years of protests, arson, a pipe bombing and an attack by a man wielding a semiautomatic weapon, Hillcrest performed more than 1,600 abortions last year, about 7 percent of the state total. The principal reason it closed its doors was that complying with the regulations would have saddled it with $500,000 in renovations — an unaffordable expense.

That’s precisely what Mr. Cuccinelli and other advocates of the policy intended. According to a survey by the state Health Department, just one of the 19 surviving clinics meets the requirements. Fifteen of the remaining facilities estimated their combined costs of compliance at $14.5 million.

Some of the clinics, including those operated by Planned Parenthood, which has a national fundraising network, will survive. Many others, which are run as small businesses, probably will not. Most have no means to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to widen corridors, install state-of-the-art surgical sinks and expand parking lots.

What’s more, the upgrades they face are arbitrary manifestations of the state’s overweening power. Other types of walk-in clinics, including those that perform oral and cosmetic surgery, are unaffected by the regulations.

As Dr. David Peters, owner of the Tidewater Women’s Health Center in Norfolk, told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper: “I can do plastic surgery. I can stick needles in babies’ lungs. I can put tubes up penises and into bladders and do all sorts of crazy stuff in my office with no regulations whatsoever. No government supervision. But for an abortion . . .it just becomes nonsensical.”

The Board of Health had sought to exempt existing abortion clinics from the regulations, which were never intended for ambulatory clinics. But board members caved when Mr. Cuccinelli, the most political attorney general in Virginia’s history, threatened to withhold the state’s legal help if they were sued.

Regulation is essential for all health services. But there is no evidence that unsanitary conditions or slapdash procedures are common at abortion clinics in Virginia nor that women who seek services from them are at risk. The state’s assault on women’s reproductive rights is an ideological crusade masquerading as concern for public health.

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