Abortion clinics fear new Virginia law could shut them down

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011

Before Rosemary Codding allows visitors into the Falls Church Healthcare Center, a self-described "pro-choice women's center," she asks them to sign a confidentiality agreement. And show a photo ID. "Because," she says matter of factly, "there's all kinds of shenanigans when it comes to abortion."

As a veteran abortion-rights activist and founder and director of this center, she has beaten back attempts to zone her out of existence and found plumbers and HVAC workers to replace the ones she says were harassed away by round-the-clock protests outside her door. Over the years, she has complied with every new requirement: the 24-hour wait before a woman has an abortion; parental notification for minors; notarized parental consent for minors. And she makes sure all would-be patients have state-mandated information about alternatives to abortion.

But when the General Assembly passed legislation late last week requiring all offices, clinics and centers like hers that perform first-trimester abortions to be regulated as hospitals - arguably the strictest requirement in the country - Codding turned so red that she went into one of the clinic's exam rooms and checked her own blood pressure.

Supporters of the vote hailed it as "historic." Victoria Cobb, president of the antiabortion Family Foundation of Virginia, said the new regulations will be "common-sense safety precautions" that for the first time could allow health inspectors into abortion clinics and potentially make requirements that specific equipment be on hand.

But Codding, 68, sees it as more "shenanigans" in the long-running war over abortion rights. And depending on how state regulators write the rules later this year, she fears that abortion opponents may succeed in practice what they have failed to achieve in court: an overturn of the landmark Roe v. Wade.

"Let's be clear," Codding said late Friday. Women came in throughout the day for abortions, Pap tests, fertility consultations and gynecologic cancer treatments. "This is not about health and safety. This is about targeting abortion providers and making it more difficult, if not impossible, to provide women affordable access to abortion with respect and dignity."

"Take a look around," said a pessimistic Jan Fruiterman, the clinic's obstetrician-gynecologist. He began practicing in the 1970s, when women had to have their husband's permission before being sterilized and single women weren't allowed to be given contraceptives. "In a few years, you won't be able to visit these clinics. They won't be here. I thought we had come farther than this," he said.

Codding and other abortion-rights activists say the Virginia legislation, which Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has said he will sign, is a TRAP law, or a Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers. Since the Supreme Court gave states the right to restrict abortions in the early 1990s, they say, more than 44 states have passed such laws.

And those that require abortion clinics to be regulated as hospitals - which up to now applied only to much-rarer second-trimester abortions - have mandated that clinics meet the structural and architectural requirements of an ambulatory surgical center.

Unlike Maryland and the District and many other states, Virginia law already requires second-trimester abortions to be performed in hospitals.

A review of these hospital-type regulations by the American Journal of Public Health found that in Texas, for example, the number of abortion providers fell from 20 in 2003 before the regulations to four in 2007. Likewise, in South Carolina, the number of providers dropped from 14 before the hospital regulations, activists said, to three. Some regulations have specific requirements for parking or landscaping.

The Family Foundation's Cobb said that there are bad actors among abortion providers and that the regulations will help root them out. "The pro-life movement has multiple goals. One is to protect unborn life," Cobb said. "And the other is protecting and caring for women. It's not the purpose of this legislation to create some ridiculous landscaping requirement."

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