First day of abortion trial delves into safety of procedures

Virginia Mercury

During the first day of a trial on a lawsuit challenging several Virginia abortion regulations, witnesses zeroed in on the safety of the medical procedure and the proficiency of non-physician clinicians.

The case targets four of the state’s abortion regulations, several of which have been on the books for more than four decades. They include rules stating that abortions can only be provided by physicians and women must receive an ultrasound 24 hours before the procedure is performed as well as additional regulations that apply to the clinics that provide abortions.

The federal case, which boasts between 5,000 and 7,000 pages of documents, is before Judge Henry E. Hudson, who was appointed to his position on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia by President George W. Bush. It is due to last two weeks.

The first witness for the plaintiffs, Dr. Mark Nichols, an OB/GYN from Oregon, testified to the safety of different types of abortions. He said the rate of complications is lower than several other common procedures, like tonsillectomies and vasectomies, and that when complications do occur during an abortion they are almost always easily treated outside of a hospital.

He also noted that abortions are far safer than childbirth, where the mortality rate is 14 to 17 times greater than having an abortion.

The plaintiffs — several clinics around Virginia that provide abortions — claim that the laws around clinics, including that they must meet hospital-like standards in some cases, are onerous. Nichols agreed, questioning why abortion clinics have been “singled out” and adding that he sees no medical benefit to the procedure.

Lawyers for the defendants — numerous state officials responsible for enforcing the regulations and licensing requirements the suit is challenging — pointed out that complications do occur, and that the woman may have to travel a great distance to get to a hospital if the procedure takes place in an outpatient facility.

Though the Attorney General’s Office, responsible for defending state laws, has had some active involvement in the case, the bulk of the defense is being handled by lawyers with the law firm Hirschler, who were hired as outside counsel.

Hudson often interjected to clarify Nichols’ testimony, frequently asking him to clarify that he was referring to first-trimester abortion care, rather than those performed later on in pregnancy, and asking if the medical procedures Nichols referred to, such as vasectomies, are only performed by physicians.

The judge had already ruled on Virginia’s physician-only rule, but rescinded his decision about a week later, saying he wanted more information during trial. His decision in allowing non-physician clinicians, like nurse practitioners and physician assistants, to perform abortions had only applied to first-trimester abortions rather than second-trimester.