September 18, 2011

IT’S ALREADY HARD to get an abortion in Virginia, and it’s about to get much harder.

The reason is a new set of regulations — absurdly onerous and utterly unnecessary — pushed by conservative ideologues in Richmond and adopted by the state Board of Health, which is dominated by appointees of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R). The regulations, which go into effect Jan. 1, are likely to result in the closure of many or most of Virginia’s 23 abortion clinics, which accounted for all but a few hundred of the 26,000 procedures performed in the state last year.

Republicans such as Mr. McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II love to pummel what they see as the regulatory zeal of liberals. But in this instance they have outdone liberals in supporting the imposition of punitive and meddling rules under the pretext of protecting women’s health but without providing an iota of evidence that women were endangered to begin with. First-trimester abortions, which account for the overwhelming majority of procedures performed in the state, are extremely safe, requiring hospitalization for complications in only the rarest of instances.

The rules will require existing clinics to meet construction and design standards mainly intended for new hospitals — not existing outpatient facilities such as abortion clinics. The rules mandate the minimum width of hallways; ceiling height; the size of operating rooms; numbers of parking spots; and other requirements that will be physically impossible, or prohibitively expensive, for many clinics to satisfy. Mr. McDonnell can make changes to the board’s recommendations but is not expected to alter them significantly.

In nearly all past cases, the state differentiated between existing structures and newly built ones when imposing fresh building standards. In this instance — and without demonstrating any need related to patient care and safety, urgent or otherwise — that practice has been thrown out.

The main victims of choking off the availability of abortions will be poor African Americans and Hispanics, who account for a majority of women who undergo abortions nationwide. In Virginia, they are concentrated in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond.

Already, it was hard for many women to find a clinic (or the rare hospital provider) to get an abortion in the commonwealth. The state has just 38 providers, down from 46 in 2005, and just eight of the state’s 135 localities have any provider.

The new regulatory regime provides antiabortion activists a shameful victory and an end run around a procedure deemed a constitutional right under the law of the land.