by Katherine A. Greenier, Director, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project, ACLU of VirginiaTomorrow, September 17 is Constitution Day, a day to commemorate the formation and signing of the Constitution and to celebrate the rights guaranteed within. Under pressure from the Attorney General’s office, the Virginia Board of Health voted yesterday to place burdensome and unnecessary regulations on women's health centers in the state, placing women’s rights in jeopardy. The threat these regulations pose to women’s access to health care and patient confidentiality reinforces that we must always be vigilant in order to protect constitutional freedoms. In place of celebration, we are reminded that women’s rights are under attack.
Women’s reproductive health centers provide a full array of safe, affordable preventive health services, including life-saving cancer screenings, birth control, prenatal care and abortion care. Health centers in the state are trusted providers, and already support the highest standards of care for women. However, women’s health centers that provide first trimester abortion care were singled out for more onerous regulations than hospitals and out-patient surgical centers.
Constitution Day serves as an important reminder that women’s rights nationally, and in the Commonwealth, are far from being fully achieved. The Constitution protects reproductive freedom, yet those rights continue to be threatened. The U.S Supreme Court has said, “The ability of women to participate in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” Reproductive freedom is the foundation of women’s equality, ensuring that men and women can make important life decisions about when and whether to become a parent free from government interference.
Yet, women’s equality suffered a blow on February 24, 2011, when the Virginia General Assembly passed Senate Bill 924. The bill classified “facilities in which 5 or more first trimester abortions per month are performed” as a category of hospitals. It mandated that the Board of Health place regulations on facilities that perform first-trimester abortion, setting in motion a fast-paced “emergency” regulations process. The draft regulations, created by the Virginia Department of Health, were released on August 26, leaving just a few weeks for the Board of Health to consider comments by medical professionals, public health experts and the general public.
The new regulations for women’s health centers in the state, approved by the Board of Health on September 15, place women's access to health care and patient privacy in jeopardy. The regulations require existing women’s health centers to come into compliance with three chapters of a manual called the 2010 Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities within the next two years. However, these Guidelines are intended to apply only to new construction, not to existing facilities. As existing women’s health centers have been providing safe care for many years, there is no need to require them to entirely rebuild their facilities under new construction requirements. Extensive, burdensome requirements for buildings that are unrelated to the services health centers provide and have no proven medical benefit will reduce or eliminate patient access to health care.
Other sections of the regulations affect patient and provider safety and confidentiality. All patients have an expectation of privacy in their medical records, which is protected by both medical ethics and law. Confidentiality is of paramount importance to patients and women’s health centers. Patients and providers are targeted for harassment outside of women’s health centers and there is a history of anti-choice activists seeking patient information in order to deter women from obtaining vital reproductive health care.
The Board heard from numerous medical professionals urging amendments to the regulations that would reflect evidence-based medicine and public health policy. Regardless of the testimony that showed the regulations would likely drive up health care costs and drive health care providers out of practice, the Board, under pressure from the Attorney General’s office, ignored sound science and failed to protect patient interests. The Attorney General’s office unilaterally hijacked the Board’s deliberations in order to impose politics and ideology over medicine.
The Department of Health and testimony by abortion opponents asserted that the regulations were framed, in part, on regulations in place in South Carolina, which were upheld by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, that is misleading. The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia testified that the draft regulations would endanger women by imposing a regime of unprecedented severity. No state has ever passed, and no court has ever upheld, such burdensome regulations.
The Board of Health has adopted policies that put women at risk. We now urge the Governor to protect women and stop playing politics with our lives.