Board of Health Meeting on TRAP Laws: An Education on “Democracy”

By Sarah Shanks
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Pro-choice activists protest Virginia TRAP laws.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Organizing around an issue and being a part of a political process is all very exciting, until you see those systems fail you and your peers. Yesterday, the Virginia Board of Health met to decide on regulations that the Governor proposed for first trimester abortion clinics. These regulations put clinics that provide first trimester abortion under the same category as hospitals, subjecting them to tremendous building requirements, as well as inspections and codes that most of them would be unable to adhere to. The building requirements that are being placed on these facilities were only intended to be requirements for new construction, making it near impossible to make the clinics’ physical structures to be in line with the regulations.

After attending a Speak Out about this issue on Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus and hearing very strong and heartfelt public comment from women’s health providers and constituents, I felt a little more positive about the impending outcome. Surely the Board would consider the strong public testimonies from the Virginia people and realize that the regulations were all just a political pawn that does not protect women, but instead hinders their access to healthcare. Surely they would see the ridiculousness of forcing current buildings to comply with new building codes and also strict hospital codes that have nothing to do with abortion care.

We knew there would be some regulations, as they could not decide to throw them out altogether, but what I did not expect is for 12 out of 13 members of the Board to sit silently and let these regulations pass without any amendments. One man on the Board, Jim Edmondson Jr., did propose many amendments to these regulations to try to make them more realistic and applicable to abortion care. He proposed amendments such as only making those clinics that provide surgical abortion comply with the hospital-like regulation, and not those who just give patients a pill (mifepristone) and send them home to have their pregnancy terminated in private. He also proposed many amendments to the parts of the regulation that made patient and provider confidentiality a gray area, urging the Board to understand the nature of this care and explaining some of the harassment that those at the clinic face.  These amendments and most others he suggested were not even seconded by one other person on the Board, therefore striking them before a discussion or vote would ever take place.
I could not believe that not ONE other person on the Board spoke out in support of Jim Edmondson, Jr’s suggestions. He was the only one who brought amendments to the meeting. Even after an hour of strong and factual public testimony against the regulations, the members of the Board sat silently, letting access to abortion fade away. In the very beginning, the Board stated that “public comment is very important to this process, and we think it’s essential to our decision making.” We learned very quickly that this statement was somewhat of a diplomatic lie, and that their minds were already made up when they stepped into the room at 9:00am yesterday morning.

With few revisions to these strict and unsound regulations, the Board passed the regulations on a 12 to 1 vote. The opposition vote was Jim Edmondson Jr’s. Seeing the sad and disappointed looks of abortion providers who have dedicated themselves to helping women in the Commonwealth of Virginia was the worst part of the decision. Now, they have to decide what they can do to still provide women with safe, legal abortion, and many may start considering not providing abortion care altogether to be able to keep the rest of the clinic.

It was devastating.  I thought there would be some truth to the process, and now I know that even health professionals can follow a political agenda, ignoring their expertise and compromising health for others. As the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women’s Health stated in their press release, “Simply put, rather than implement medically – proven policies, the Board of Health adopted regulations that will put women’s health at risk.

If anything, this outcome is strong proof that we reproductive rights activists have a lot of work ahead of us. We need to do all that we can to ensure that more of our rights to reproductive care and abortion are not taken away by politicians who impose their ideologies onto women. They are doing everything in their power to take away abortion, even if they cannot overturn its legality. What is the point of abortion being legal if there are so many barriers to access? Now, we have to prepare to see clinics in Virginia either close or stop providing abortion. We need to think about those in rural areas of the state, especially in the south, having to drive miles and go to different states to get their abortion care.  We need to think about those providers who have dedicated their lives to getting women the care they need now being disenfranchised and forced out of the business in the state.

Please do something about this unfair regulation and sign the petition to urge the Governor to not use his “pro-life” stance and political aspirations to hurt women’s lives. Also please attend our rally against these regulations on October 15, 2011 from 1-3 pm in Monroe Park in Richmond. We can get our governments to change in represent us, and we have to do everything in our power to try.

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