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Defending Women's Rights Past, Present, and Future

Katherine A. Greenier,
ACLU of Virginia
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March 22, 2011

Patricia M. Arnold, a pioneer woman aviator and longtime supporter of the ACLU of Virginia, was a trailblazer for women’s rights. Arnold made history when she became the first woman in the world to own a helicopter. Her legacy lived on when, in 2007, Arnold left the bulk of her estate to the ACLU of Virginia Foundation to establish the Patricia M. Arnold Memorial Fund. The purpose of the fund, according to her will, is “to combat through all legal means, the pervasive and powerful sexual bias and sexual discrimination against women found to exist in the State of Virginia.” The ACLU of Virginia is proud to fulfill Ms. Arnold’s wishes to further gender equality through the recent establishment of the Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project.

The Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project combats gender bias in Virginia by protecting and advancing the equal rights of women through public education, advocacy, and litigation. Key areas of concern include equal educational and economic opportunities for women, reproductive rights, violence against women, and the treatment of incarcerated women.

The project’s most recent advocacy work centers on reproductive justice, namely the multitude of bills introduced every year at the Virginia General Assembly that threaten reproductive rights. Legislative maneuverings are nothing new, but the Virginia General Assembly, with some last-minute shenanigans during this past session, may have maneuvered itself into reproductive rights morass with very real legal implications.

On February 24, 2011, the House of Delegates passed Senate Bill 924, a bill that requires the Board of Health to issue regulations related to infection prevention and disaster preparedness for hospitals, nursing homes and certified nursing facilities. As approved by the Senate, S.B. 924 had nothing to do with abortions, but House members added a last-minute amendment that classifies “facilities in which 5 or more first trimester abortions per month are performed” as a category of hospitals.

This is a problem for abortion providers because the new regulations would require largely cosmetic, but very costly building renovations. Clinics in the state that currently provide safe and legal first-trimester abortions will have to meet at least some of the facilities requirements now imposed on the various types of hospitals classified under state law, possibly the requirements now mandated for outpatient surgical centers. Even doctor’s offices that provide medical abortions in the very beginning stages of pregnancy could be affected. Even those clinics that can afford to remodel to meet the new standards will be forced to pass along the expenses to their clients, thereby making abortions too costly for many women. Seventeen of the 21 abortion providers in Virginia could shut down due to an inability to meet these new regulations.

There simply is no legitimate legislative purpose for singling out abortions in the way S.B. 924 does. These measures, called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (or “TRAP” laws), have nothing to do with the safe delivery of services for women and everything to do with legislators’ views on reproductive rights. Indeed, any health care expert will tell you that the architectural, procedural, staffing, and equipment requirements of outpatient surgical centers are unrelated to providing — and unnecessary for ensuring — safe first-trimester abortion services.

Abortion is no different from many other outpatient procedures that do not trigger these kinds of strict regulations. Physician’s offices that provide abortions are already regulated by state and federal agencies. They also meet the same licensing standards as facilities where other similar kinds of surgical medical procedures are provided, such as plastic surgeries, colonoscopies, and sterilization. That’s why, until this amendment passed, the General Assembly had over many years, including this year, repeatedly voted down TRAP legislation when introduced as a stand-alone bill.

We don’t know what the Board of Health is going to do now, but one thing is certain: Legislators have enacted a law intended to harm rather than promote women’s health in Virginia. Legal or not, that’s bad lawmaking. The Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU of Virginia plans to vigorously demand reproductive justice and equality for all women, in the spirit of Patricia M. Arnold, for a better future for women.

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