SOME VIRGINIA Republican legislators described a final version of a proposed bill regulating abortion clinics as better than the original. Better in this case must mean more euphemistic. An original version included language that was, well, just too obvious about its authors' real intentions, with digressions about "violence against innocent human life" and "profound" psychological consequences. By the final version yesterday, the orations had been excised and the bill was boiled down to its essentials: a list of health and safety codes as thick as a Russian novel and equally complex.
If one had never heard of the abortion debate, one might mistake the authors of this bill for people who wanted to make abortion as comfortable and efficient as possible. Sponsored by Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), the bill would change the designation of abortion clinics from physicians' offices to outpatient surgical hospitals. This would ratchet up the standards they must follow, requiring them to have elevators wide enough for gurneys, larger hallways and doors, and showers for employees. The bill then expands on those existing requirements, adding special recliners, outpatient services, a sufficient supply of fresh hand towels, and entrances free of snow and ice at all times.
Some of this is just standard stuff any responsible physician's office would have, but some is easily recognizable for what it really is: the latest tactic of antiabortion activists, who have managed to pass similar restrictions in 35 states and counting, forcing clinics to shut down or spend a lot of money. Virginia's bill is in fact explicitly modeled on the most restrictive, the new laws in Louisiana, Texas and South Carolina.
As usual with abortion, it's difficult to sort out the truth in all the noise. Mr. Marshall describes the state's clinics as kin to Josef Mengele's office: "atrocious things going on, blood on the floor, fetal remains in the garbage disposal, people working there who are misusing drugs, convicted of felonies, sexually abusing the women." But state health officials say they have received no more complaints about abortion clinics than about any other physician's office. And Nancy Hofheimer, director of the state's Center for Quality Health Care Services, which oversees outpatient surgical hospitals, said it would be inappropriate to elevate the abortion clinics to hospital status, especially because the bill does not apply to any other clinics that similarly perform outpatient surgery.
Abortion rights activists say the bill would shut down all but one of eight or so abortion clinics in Virginia. Providers disagree, saying that it might shut down one or two but that the rest would swallow the losses and keep working. The most likely scenario, they predict, is that abortions in Virginia would be more of a hassle and more expensive, so women who could drive to the District or Maryland would do so.
Current Virginia law pretty closely reflects a growing consensus on abortion. In polls, including the latest ones done for this week's anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a sizable majority of Americans say they are uneasy about abortion and want to restrict it reasonably while keeping it legal in the first trimester. The District and Maryland allow abortion into the second trimester with almost no restrictions. Virginia allows it only in the first and requires a 24-hour wait and parental consent for minors -- the kind of restrictions many Americans favor. With this latest brand of euphemistic controls, the state would be pushing it one step too far.