On Friday, April 12th, the Virginia Board of Health met expectations in the same way a car with no breaks rolling towards a cliff meets expectations – inertia did its thing, and now we’re falling face first towards the rocks below.
In an 11 to 2 decision, the Board approved Senate Bill 924, a Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (“TRAP”) law that will require women’s clinics to adhere to the same building standards as most new hospitals (but more specifically, “ambulatory surgical centers”). The outcome was unsurprising; the Board has overwhelmingly voted to keep the TRAP bill in play a half a dozen times since its introduction in 2011. Nevertheless, it was quite the blow – eleven individuals of considerable power effectively said “no” to defending women’s health. They did so despite the fact that anti-TRAP citizens turned out in droves for every public comment period, armed with thousands of likeminded petitions. More often than not, they outnumbered the pro-TRAP individuals.
Board members who voted “yes” did so despite the fact that multiple medical experts had come to them and explained the repercussions of holding an underfunded women’s clinic to nonsense criterion. Some doctors who supported SB 924 when it was first drafted now express dismay at what it has become: “I don’t know where [the regulations] got changed,” said Dr. James E. Ferguson II, who sat on the bill’s advisory panel, “but ultimately they were different, more stringent and more restrictive – and several of them, at least, unnecessary.” The decision will lead to the closure of many of Virginia’s twenty or so women’s clinics that perform first trimester abortions. It has already started happening.
I’ll step away from the Board and the future for a bit and describe the concerned citizens who showed up.
The pro-TRAP side seemed to consist mainly of church congregations and independent older couples, though there was a small college-age youth division as well. Riffing on a World War II British slogan that’s enjoying a surge in popularity again — “Keep Calm and Carry On” — a handful of people wore stickers saying “Keep Calm and Carry a Baby.”
Approximately thirty pro-TRAP commenters addressed the Board during the hour-long public comment period. Most commenters made no bones about their ideology and motives: they are Christian, they are anti-choice, and they want the law to pass so abortion is vastly reduced. They generally focused on either women or fetuses. Unborn children need a defender, they said – one woman came to the microphone with a poster-size photo of an aborted fetus, going for the “it’s hard to look at so it must be wrong” tactic. Others said that women are better off not just morally when they avoid abortion, but physically. A few commenters made women’s clinics out to be evil, corner-cutting places that were out to hurt women in a bind.
After all those speakers, a board member who was sympathetic to TRAP tried to counter another member’s comment by saying “we don’t want to shut down abortion clinics.” The anti-TRAP side couldn’t help but laugh.
A slight majority of the speakers were anti-TRAP. A number of individuals kicked off their comments by calling their own efforts fruitless – they had spoken before the Board multiple times on the issue of the TRAP law, some ever since 2011, but clearly it held no sway over how the members would vote. Still, it was important to not go down without a fight.
The TRAP law seems to rest on the notion that abortions are complex procedures that threaten the health of the woman, hence a need to make facilities which provide them adhere to harsher standards. Commenters from my side pointed out that this fuss is unfounded – standard first trimester abortions are ten to fifteen minute outpatient procedures that don’t require the incapacitation of the patient, nor do they require an overnight stay. Colonoscopies, dental surgery, and plastic surgery carry more risk. One openly anti-choice Board member recalled a visit to a Virginia Beach women’s clinic, and said in a grave tone that women walked from the room where they had the procedure to the recovery room. Her gist was that the clinic was cheap and uncaring for not wheeling their patients to and fro; anti-TRAP medical experts knew better. Patients can safely walk after the procedure – it IS an outpatient procedure. This is the gift of Roe vs. Wade – safe abortions performed by professionals in sanitary settings, instead of novices in back alleys or motel rooms.
Many commenters referenced the big to-do of June 2012, when the Board voted to grandfather in existing women’s clinics (translation: exempt them from the standards) and apply the code only to future ones. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli weighed in heavily afterwards, saying the Board was out of line – they didn’t have the authority to make exceptions, and if they upheld their decision they would not receive legal support from the Attorney General or his office should any of them be sued. The Board, cowed, voted again and reversed the grandfathering decision. Anti-TRAP advocates cited precedents and posited that the Board was well within their rights to grandfather, urging them to see the pro-life Cuccinelli’s threat for what it was: a bullying tactic.
One speaker highlighted the nature of this bureaucratic threat: “there isn’t a janitor’s closet big enough to hide Cuccinelli’s disdain for women.”
When the Board returned from a ten-minute break, the political fireworks began. Anna Jeng and Jim Edmundson, our champions, asked that the decision be deferred until June on the grounds that the Board hadn’t gathered the necessary amount of information yet. Setting aside pro-choice/anti-choice ideology, Jeng brought up an important point: women’s clinics are classified as small businesses, and one of the major priorities in America today is helping the small business owner succeed. More than that, Virginia’s Governor McDonnell issued a set of parameters for regulation not too long ago, in the form of Executive Order 14; the Order calls upon the Board of Health to “cite the best reasonably available scientific, economic, and other information in support of regulatory proposals.” The duo of Edmundson and Jeng was forthright in its view that the Board had not made all the considerations it needed to make yet, and if it went through with the voting process that day anyway, they would be guilty of violating the governor’s mandate. Sadly, the motion to delay was voted down, as was a motion to amend the language of the law. Evidently, the majority of the Board was perfectly happy with TRAP.
My shoulders were up around my ears for the duration of the meeting, but the pinnacle of stress came at the expected time – the final deliberation. The Board had heard an hour’s worth of public testimony, the majority of which opposed the law. Had any of it gotten through? No – each member voted just as they had in their previous TRAP decisions. As the “yes” votes rolled in, a number of red hands went up in the audience, signifying blood from a future slew of self-executed abortions were now on the Board and Cuccinelli’s hands. When TRAP was finalized and the gavel banged, many in the anti-TRAP division stood up and shouted “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Some had donned Cuccinelli masks at this time. Security was called in to escort the standing protestors out. One man was jostled out singing a popular civil rights song.
The meeting was an education for me, and not the fun kind where you learn about theory and all the diversity and possibility in the world. It was an education in realness and narrowness – sometimes the People speak and they aren’t heard. Sometimes a decision is made and it has immediate real world consequences – perhaps right now, women’s clinics all over my state are drawing up construction plans and trying to figure out how to pay for it all, or deciding when to close their doors.
Friday did not teach me that my presence and voice makes a big difference, but it did teach me to fight the fight, even if it is a losing one. It energized me – I want to be that person standing in line at 6:30 in the morning many times over in my life, ready to show my solidarity or opposition with a given bill or motion.
Photo by Emily Butler