Va. health officials weigh new rules advocates hope will expand rural abortion access

By: - September 5, 2019 5:15 pm

Virginia just launched its new Office of the Children’s Ombudsman, aimed at overseeing the state’s child welfare system. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Board of Health is considering rolling back strict rules surrounding certain types of abortion, a move advocates hope would expand access to the procedure, particularly in rural parts of the state.

New regulations under review distinguish surgical and medication-only abortions for the first time, exempting providers of medication-only abortions from some requirements imposed under legislation signed in 2011 by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, which advocates for abortion access call TRAP laws, or Targeted Restrictions of Abortion Providers.

“We have these big abortion deserts in Southwest Virginia and the western half of the state where there are no abortion providers and it would be hard for a new provider to move in … and follow all the TRAP laws,” said Galina Varchena, the policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. “So we’re hoping this will mean that some independent providers will come in and start providing medication-only abortions.”

Under Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Board of Health already rescinded the strictest requirements of the 2011 legislation, which, among other things, imposed hospital-style construction standards advocates say are medically unnecessary and designed solely to shut down clinics.

A Henrico County judge invalidated several of those changes earlier this year on procedural grounds following a legal challenge spearheaded by the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia, which opposes all efforts to roll back the 2011 law. The decision prompted the current slate of proposed rules, which would restore the regulations overturned in court but also include additional changes, including the distinction between medication and surgical abortions. (Abortion rights advocates say the term “procedural abortion” is more appropriate than “surgical abortion,” the language used by the Department of Health, arguing the technique is not actually a surgery.)

Currently, the 15 licensed abortion providers in the state provide both procedures. Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health in Charlottesville, said about half of her clinic’s patients opt for surgical abortions and half opt for medical abortions – a decision she said comes down to patient choice and timing.

She said she supports creating a license that would allow doctors to administer medication-only abortions because it would expand access by allowing more primary care practices to offer the procedure. Currently any medical practice that performs five or more abortions of any kind annually must develop plans covering anesthesia, tissue disposal, patient discharge and other requirements, which advocates and the health department say aren’t applicable in the case of medication-only procedures.

The new regulations under review would also give health department officials discretion over when to investigate complaints lodged against clinics. Currently any complaint triggers an inspection, but advocates say many “come from opponents who have never set foot in an abortion clinic.”

The Board of Health heard public comment on the proposed rules on Thursday morning. About 25 people spoke in favor of the change or called for an even broader roll-back of regulations required under the 2011 legislation. “Overall these are a big improvement,” said Varchena, of NARAL. “But they don’t go quite as far as we’d like. We’d like the whole TRAP statute scrapped.”

Two people – representatives of the Family Foundation and the Virginia Catholic Conference – opposed, arguing the proposed rules are too broad.

“The current commonsense health and safety standards for abortion facilities are both necessary and far better and safer for women,” said Josh Hetzler, the Family Foundation’s legislative counsel. “This board … has been tasked with ensuring the public health and safety of vulnerable Virginians, not to make business easier and cheaper for certain favored industries.”

The board voted to defer action until its December meeting. Members said they wanted time to consider the public comments they heard and to see if a forthcoming ruling in a federal court case challenging the state’s abortion regulations and laws impacts the rules they can adopt.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.