By Kathy Greenier, ACLU of Virginia Reproductive Freedom Project Director
reprofreedom_justice scalesSince last July, two cities in Virginia, Fairfax and Manassas, have voted on new rules that affect access to reproductive health care. What happened in Fairfax and Manassas? How can you make sure access to reproductive health care is protected where you live? Read further to learn more, and join us this Wednesday at noon – we’ll be answering these and other reproductive freedom questions during our weekly #libertychatVA on Twitter.  Tell your friends and tweet us your questions!
Almost a year ago, burdensome and medically unnecessary regulations aimed at shutting down abortion providers in the state went in to effect. The state-mandated regulations require abortion facilities to meet building standards that are unrelated to the services they provide, like five foot wide hallways and hospital-style HVAC systems. In every other instance in Virginia law, except abortion providers, the building standards are required only for the construction of new health care facilities, not existing buildings.  Under these state-mandated rules, if a women’s health care center can’t meet the forced construction requirements, they must close.  And, these regulations have already begun to serve their purpose.  Last June 30th, NoVA Women’s Healthcare closed its doors because it could not meet the new, medically unnecessary regulations.  NoVA Women’s Healthcare provided the most abortions of any women’s health care center in Virginia, and served their community with birth control and other critical health care services like STD testing and cancer screenings.
As we recently argued in an Inside NoVA Op-Ed, not content with interfering in a woman’s private medical decisions on the statewide level, some Virginia politicians are now meddling with a woman’s private life at the local level too.  For example, after Fairfax City officials denied NoVA Women’s Healthcare’s application to move in to a space that could be retrofitted to meet the state-wide regulations, the Fairfax City council changed their zoning rules to make future applications more difficult.  Last July, the Fairfax City Council voted to approve a new zoning rule, deleting the term “clinic” from the definition of a doctor’s office, and requiring all medical care facilities to obtain a special use permit. Before this change, the city’s zoning law categorized clinics that provide women’s health care, including abortion services, the same as doctor’s and dentist’s offices, which are not subject to the special use permit process. Why does the change in the zoning rule matter?  Well, a “Special Use Permit” requires a burdensome process - application fees, legal fees related to filing, a public hearing and staff review, and approval by City Council.
Women’s health centers that provide abortion care, a service that’s extremely safe and minimally invasive, should be treated alike with physician’s offices that provide preventative care, well-patient care, and out-patient procedures. Singling out women’s health centers as different from other doctor’s offices and applying the same zoning rules to them as hospitals and facilities not performing comparable in-patient procedures is a categorization not grounded in medical reality. It’s not only unfair, but also harms women who count on these facilities for their reproductive and preventive health care services.
In March of this year, the Manassas City Council tried to follow in Fairfax’s footsteps. Fortunately, because its residents stood up, the Council denied this attempt to subject certain medical facilities, including abortion facilities, but not doctor’s or dentist’s offices, to a special use permit process. The Council instead voted in favor of a comprehensive update to the city’s zoning law. Consideration of medical facilities, including abortion providers, will be part of that comprehensive review.
Fairfax has also begun an update of its zoning law. It’s crucial that the comprehensive update in both cities treats women’s health care centers that provide abortion fairly, and does not target abortion providers with restrictions designed to limit patients’ access to reproductive health care.
Make sure to follow #LibertyChatVA on Twitter this  Wednesday at noon.  We’ll have a conversation about what you can do in your community to advocate for reproductive freedom.  We’ll also answer any questions you have about the status of reproductive freedom in the Commonwealth.  Join us!
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