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Progressive Voice: Eliminating Traps

Larry Roberts

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organization or

Medical evidence trumped ideology in Richmond last week when the state Board of Health voted to scale back regulations that had threatened to put many abortion providers out of business.

By a 9-6 vote, the Board took a major step forward in rolling back medically unnecessary restrictions on women’s health clinics.

The Board approved recommendations from the state’s Health Commissioner to rescind regulations requiring Virginia’s abortion facilities to comply retroactively with standards designed for construction of new hospitals. The Board’s vote included approval of key amendments by former State Senator from Arlington (and now Board of Health member) Mary Margaret Whipple to clarify and strengthen the Commissioner’s proposal.

These changes grandfathered existing facilities, eliminated hospital transfer agreement requirements, and ensured that regulations applying to existing, expanded and new abortion facilities would be limited to those focused specifically on patient health and safety.

Sen. Barbara Favola, who succeeded Mary Margaret Whipple and represents Arlington in the Virginia Senate, applauded the vote against “ideologically driven and medically unnecessary TRAP regulations” as a “decision of the Board [that] reflects the triumph of reason over politics.”

The TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) regulations to be eased under the new rules were put in place by a Board of Health dominated by appointees of former Governor Bob McDonnell – only after then Attorney General (and staunch anti-abortion activist) Ken Cuccinelli threatened to withhold legal representation in the event Board members voted against his wishes and were sued.

There was no medical evidence that the TRAP regulations were necessary to protect women’s health. Indeed, abortion services are among the safest of medical procedures. When the Department of Health conducted an exhaustive two-year study of abortion facilities, it found no evidence of violations resulting in harm to patients at clinics that had performed tens of thousands of first-trimester abortions.

By contrast, there was plenty of evidence that TRAP regulations placed enormous economic burdens on women’s health centers – leading to a further reduction in Virginian’s limited access to reproductive health services. Already, many women must travel 100 miles or more to reach the closest clinic.

This is not just a “downstate” problem. In recent years, a clinic in Fairfax City closed and another in Manassas recently announced that it would be closing.

The process for undoing the unnecessary and burdensome TRAP regulations began with a lawsuit filed in Arlington County Circuit Court to stop the regulations from taking effect. Although former Attorney General Cuccinelli moved to have the lawsuit dismissed, the Court rejected his request.

The lawsuit was put on hold after Governor McAuliffe issued an Executive Directive in May 2014 ordering an expedited review of the TRAP regulations by the Board of Health. In addition, most facilities in Virginia received temporary waivers of the TRAP regulations that allowed them to remain open while the review was being completed.

In May 2015, Attorney General Herring issued an opinion that the previous administration had provided incorrect legal advice to the Board of Health and intervened in a process that is supposed to be driven by medical professionals.

There are more steps in the process before the TRAP regulations are finally taken off the books, but the Board of Health’s actions take immediate pressures off the remaining healthcare centers in Virginia that provide abortion services.

This is a victory for Arlington and the entire Commonwealth. As Governor McAuliffe concluded in his statement last week: “This Commonwealth should be a leader in bringing people together and building a new Virginia economy – not in partisan crusades against women’s rights. I applaud the Board of Health for ending this disturbing chapter in our history and for heeding the advice of experts, medical professionals, and Virginia women about the best way to provide safe access to health care.”

Arlington also has a role to play. As advocated by a candidate in this year’s County Board election, Arlington should ensure that its zoning practices are friendly to the establishment of women’s health centers in the County.

Larry Roberts is an attorney in private practice. A resident of Arlington for over 30 years, he also spent four years in Richmond as Counselor to the Governor. He has represented the Falls Church Healthcare Center in litigation and regulatory matters.

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