By Erica Terrini
Capital News Service
RICHMOND—About 80 percent of Virginia’s clinics that provide first-trimester abortions would close if Gov. Bob McDonnell signs into law a bill that passed the Senate on a tie vote Thursday, abortion rights advocates say.
Senate Bill 924, which passed after Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling broke the Senate’s 20-20 tie, would classify clinics that provide at least five first-trimester abortions per month as hospitals. The measure would hold such clinics to hospital standards governing “construction, maintenance, operation, staffing, equipping, staff qualifications and training.”
If the bill becomes law, Virginia would be the only state where a patient would have to go to a hospital. to receive a first-trimester abortion.
The original draft of the bill, introduced by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Mechanicsville, would require the Virginia Board of Health to promulgate and enforce standards to ensure “infection prevention, disaster preparedness, and facility security of hospitals, nursing homes, and certified nursing facilities.” It did not mention abortion clinics.
The House added an amendment to SB 924 by Delegate Kathy Byron, R-Lynchburg. It would require the Board of Health to apply those same standards “to any facility in which five or more first trimester abortions per month are performed.”
Byron said that she has been a long-time supporter of women’s health issues and that she offered her amendment because it would protect women’s health. She said her amendment was unrelated to the “pro-life vs. pro-choice” debate over abortion rights. That issue, she said, rests with the federal government in Washington, D.C.
“We have had a bill – a safety bill – that Delegate Richard Bell carried this year. And it went over into the Senate from the House and, like any bill that deals with anything remotely close to abortion, the bill died in committee,” Byron said.
“We haven’t been able to get what I consider (to be) a fair vote because that committee is heavily weighted with people that all believe the same (thing).”
Byron was referring to Bell’s House Bill 1428, which would have required the Board of Health to license and regulate clinics that provide 25 or more first-trimester abortions in any 12-month period.
HB 1428 was approved Jan. 26 on a 66-33 vote in the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a majority. (Of the 99 delegates, 58 are Republican, 39 are Democratic and two are independent.)
But HB 1428 died in the Senate, where Democrats hold 22 seats and Republicans 18. The Senate Education and Health Committee killed the bill on a 10-5 party-line vote on Feb. 17.
Byron said the regulation of clinics that provide abortions can be “a very emotional issue” for opponents of SB 924 or HB 1428. But she said she believes that the overriding issue is women’s health – not abortion.
“The opponents of the bill are concerned that (the bill is) going to hinder access for women to be able to have abortions – and I disagree with that statement,” she said.
However, according to Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, SB 924 would result in the closure of about 80 percent of Virginia’s clinics that offer abortion services. It has the potential to hinder health care access for women, he said.
“I think we had very good points made on the floor of the Senate both yesterday and today as to why this was unneeded and inappropriate legislation,” Barker said Thursday.
Barker also said the bill does not differentiate between medical abortions and surgical abortions.
According to the website of the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, medical abortions involve a combination of medications that terminate pregnancy, while surgical abortions require a doctor to surgically terminate a pregnancy.
“There are a number of medical abortions during the early weeks of pregnancy. (Under SB 924) the clinics still have to be licensed as a hospital – even if it’s just a physician office providing medications for medical abortions,” Barker said. “It’s a very significant measure that I certainly expect will be challenged legally.”
He said SB 924 would apply overly strict stands to clinics that offer first-trimester abortions. For example, he said, there is no need for such clinics to meet the physical construction standards for hospitals.
The legislation is “not something done for the safety of the patient – because if it were a patient safety issue, you would do it for everything that involves similar procedures,” Barker said.
In its original form, which did not cover abortion clinics, SB 924 was approved unanimously by the Senate on Feb. 2.
On Feb. 21, the House voted 63-34 to add Byron’s amendment to SB 924. Delegates then passed the overall bill, 67-32.
On Thursday, the Senate took up the House-amended bill. A motion to approve the House amendments tied, 20-20, after Democratic Sens. Phillip Puckett of Tazewell and Charles Colgan of Manassas joined the 18 Republicans in voting for the bill.
Bolling, a Republican, then broke the tie and voted in favor of SB 924. It now goes to McDonnell, also a Republican. The governor said that if the bill clears an internal legal review, he will sign it. He called the measure a “clinic safety issue.”
The bill sparked intense deliberations among legislators.
“It ended up being a 20-20 vote; we don’t have that many of those,” Barker said. “There were a lot of feelings on both sides of the issue.”
While Barker was disappointed, Byron called the vote “a great victory for women.”
“There’s nothing sad about it—I heard someone comment it was sad,” Byron said. “I’ve been sad many times in committee when they killed my bill, so I understand if they feel this is a threat. But I don’t see it as that.”