On June 27, I took a deep breath and cracked an enormous lead-plaintiff smile. The U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of abortion access, striking down clinic-shutdown laws in my home state of Texas and affirming that all women deserve compassion, respect and dignity in making their health decisions. Its opinion in our case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, set a precedent against which laws regulating abortion must be judged: A law or regulation that does not convey a health benefit that outweighs the burden on abortion access is a fraudulent restriction and unconstitutional.
The court’s ruling concerned House Bill 2, politically motivated legislation in Texas designed to shut down abortion providers. Among other medically unnecessary restrictions, HB2 required all abortions to be performed in mini-hospital facilities. I have worked in abortion care for more than 26 years and know the statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Guttmacher Institute to be true: Abortion is incredibly safe. Fewer than 0.05 percent of patients experience major complications that might require hospital care.
By setting abortion and those of us who provide it apart from other medical procedures, these laws enhanced the stigma and secrecy women face when trying to access quality care. Instead of making abortion safer, the added restrictions insulted women’s intelligence, chipped away at their dignity and dishonored their decision-making processes.
Women come to us from many walks of life. They share the decision to end a pregnancy. They receive from us care that treats them with the complete measure of individuality, respect and dignity they deserve. Restrictions such as those passed in Texas and dozens of other states were not about women’s health, safety or dignity. Their only goal was to end access to safe and legal abortion. The Supreme Court saw that as clearly as we do.
In Texas, I saw the impact of that radical ideology firsthand. At Whole Woman’s Health, we had to close two facilities. These restrictions that play politics with women’s health aren’t just wrong; they’re also dangerous. Closing safe, high-quality health-care clinics in our communities won’t end the need for abortion. It only forces women to take matters into their own hands or forces them into the hands of substandard providers. Make no mistake: Clinic-shutdown laws harm women.
In 2011, Virginia politicians passed their own clinic-shutdown law. The details were left up to the Virginia Board of Health, which yielded to bullying from then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and approved draconian restrictions that have nothing to do with women’s health and safety or the medical reality of abortion.
Politicians, not doctors, push these clinic-shutdown laws. Restrictions such as Virginia’s that require a certain hallway width or awning height and are not imposed on any other type of non-hospital medical office in the commonwealth are medically unnecessary. They are designed not to advance patient health and safety but to shut down safe, high-quality women’s health-care centers and end access to abortion.
The best way to ensure the safety of a woman who has decided to end a pregnancy is to ensure her access to high-quality, safe, legal care with dignity, not to shut down the reputable health-care professionals who offer it. But since the clinic-shutdown law passed in 2011, Virginia has lost one-third of its first-trimester abortion providers, in part because of these fraudulent restrictions.
These attacks are not isolated. Since 2010, Virginia politicians have proposed more than 75 restrictions on women’s access to abortion and reproductive health care. Those restrictions include mandatory ultrasounds, restrictions on birth control access, and a refusal to allow insurance policies to cover abortion procedures. These proposals are part of a long-term, coordinated campaign to end access to abortion in Virginia and have nothing to do with women’s health and safety.
On Thursday, the Virginia Board of Health can stop the sham. It can vote to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt and end the egregious building and construction restrictions that require a specific number of parking places and a specific size for the janitor’s closet. They can vote politicians out of the doctor’s office and take a major step toward allowing Virginians to make decisions about their pregnancies with dignity and respect. I urge the Virginia Board of Health to vote to protect women’s access to safe and legal abortion in the commonwealth.
The writer is founder and chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health.