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After months of debate, Virginia’s State Board of Health voted 13-2 on Friday to impose strict new building standards on abortion clinics across the Commonwealth. The regulations– requiring existing clinics to meet the same standards as hospitals– could force some of Virginia’s 20 clinics to close. Some board members complained of intimidation by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in advance of the vote. We look at the legal and legislative wrangling behind the debate.
- Laura Vozzella Reporter, Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, mosquitoes, West Nile and stink bugs, the bug guy, Mike Raupp joins us to explain how the hot summer affected the insects we're seeing right now. But first, abortion politics in Virginia.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEarlier this year, the Commonwealth found itself in the midst of a national debate over abortion after legislators passed a new law requiring invasive ultrasounds for women seeking to terminate their pregnancies, but Virginia's most significant new anti-abortion law has mostly escaped the headlines until now. In 2011, the General Assembly approved a law forcing clinics that perform abortions to meet the strict building standards of hospitals not doctors' offices, a change that could put Virginia's 20 clinics out of business.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThat law was briefly thwarted this summer by Virginia's Board of Health which exempted existing clinics from the new regs, but this Friday, the board reversed itself under pressure from Virginia's conservative Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli. Joining us by phone now is Laura Vozzella, Virginia reporter with The Washington Post. Laura Vozzella, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHi. Nice to be here.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBack in 2011, Virginia legislators passed this law I just mentioned that would regulate clinics as hospitals and could potentially put most current abortion providers in the Commonwealth out of business. That law looked like it might be thwarted by the Virginia Department of Health until Friday. What exactly happened on Friday?
MS. LAURA VOZZELLAThat's right. Well, they did a complete about-face. Now, I'll tell you the decision in June to grandfather the clinics was actually the bigger surprise. That was sort of unexpected when the board voted 7-4 to grandfather the clinics, and at the time, the attorney general's office had a representative there arguing against that and saying that the board lacked authority to do that, saying that that's -- did not fulfill the intent of the General Assembly and that the plain reading of the law said that's -- indicated that they wanted current clinics covered.
MS. LAURA VOZZELLABut the board went ahead and, you know, followed its own desires and voted 7-4 back in June. And then in the interim -- well, for one thing, only 11 members showed up in June. This time, everybody was there, including one board member whose daughter was getting married that -- the next day, on Saturday, and he was risking missing her rehearsal dinner to be there but -- so was the command performance on Friday.
MS. LAURA VOZZELLAAnd there was also one additional member of the board who had filled a vacancy, and he was -- he's a pro-life activist, an OB-GYN who -- so he was voting -- he joined forces with the other anti-abortion folks on the board to reverse that decision.
MS. LAURA VOZZELLAAlso, just maybe two days before the board meeting, Ken Cuccinelli's office, the attorney general's office, had sent a letter to board members warning that -- well, reiterating the position that they didn't have the authority to grandfather and also suggesting that they -- that the office would not provide legal representation to board members if for some reason they were sued over the policy, say...
NNAMDIAnd some people, frankly, perceived that as a threat, correct?
VOZZELLASome did. I will say that one of the two members who then -- who was most vocal against -- most vocally in favor of continuing the representation, Jim Edmonson, who's on the board, he said he didn't personally perceived it as a threat, but that he certainly thought it changed some people's minds. But Ken Cuccinelli -- or I should say his office said that the office would not -- or would have the ability to decline representation and made it clear that they be personally on the hooks for legal fees if they were sued of over that.
VOZZELLANow, whether some law -- lawyers came in and testified, saying that that wouldn't be the case even if for some reason the attorney general's office had to recuse himself from any resulting litigation that the Commonwealth would still cover their legal bills. But it was certainly not clear to some people, and perhaps that changed their minds.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Laura Vozzella. She's Virginia reporter for The Washington Post about abortion clinic rules in Virginia that have now passed the Board of Health which had essentially at an earlier stage said that those rules only existed to new abortion clinics and not existing ones. Well, that is no longer the case. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIDo you think abortion and other social issues will be a major issue in Virginia come November when people go to the polls? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there. Not only did all 15 members of the board show up for this meeting, it's my understanding, Laura Vozzella, that the meeting itself was highly contentious because protesters were also on hand.
VOZZELLAOh, yes. Both sides had their people out in force. There were about 100 or maybe about 80 in the meeting room itself, then a second overflow room was set up for another 100 and then several hundred outside the building who couldn't get in. It was just too full.
NNAMDIAbortion foes in Richmond have used a number of tactics and strategies to try to curtail the number of abortions performed in that state. These regulations are really about architecture and structural design. For those of our listeners who may not have been familiar with them before, what do they actually say?
VOZZELLAThey've specified -- well, basically up until now, the clinics have been regulated, as doctors' offices are regulated. This would put them in the same category as ambulatory surgery centers, and there are much stricter standards for things such as the width of hallways, the height of ceilings, everything from requiring that there be hands-free sinks to making sure there's a drinking fountain in the waiting room, specifying that there be an awning.
VOZZELLAThe proponents for these regulations say it will make them safer and make the procedure cleaner, and they're saying we're looking out for women's safety and how the opponents are saying that these architectural standards aren't necessary. These are for centers that perform only first-term abortions. Later-term ones have to be performed in hospitals in Virginia, anyway. And so the opponents of the regulations are saying that it's just about restricting access, putting clinics out of business.
NNAMDIAnd thus architecture and structural design get caught up in the culture wars. We go to the phones, to Jodie in Woodbridge, Va. Jodie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JODIEHi. How are you doing, Kojo?
JODIEWill this affect my vote? Yes. I refuse to vote for any party that's going to turn any woman into a walking, talking incubator for a baby she doesn't want.
NNAMDISo that, because of this reversal by the Board of Health, you have now decided how you're going to vote in this election.
JODIENo. I already had been leaning one way more than another, but that's kind of like, OK, I've had it with people in politics trying to tell women how to control their private lives as far as contraception and whether to have babies or not, or in general health. So I've had it with that.
NNAMDILaura Vozzella, Jodie's comment underlines a reality that the politics of abortion are very tricky in Virginia, especially in this election cycle. When the national Republican Party is trying to reach independent and moderate voters, how do you think this vote fits into that broader balancing act after having apparently been in a way influenced by conservative Republican Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli?
VOZZELLAWell, it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out. I guess, anything that brings the issue of abortion to the fore has a potential to energize the base on either side, so in that sense it could go either way. I will say I thought it was interesting over the weekend. Tim Kaine's office very promptly issued a statement condemning the reversal. And George Allen's office didn't -- I should say his campaign did not issue anything.
VOZZELLAAnd then when asked, declined to comment. So at least, from the perspective of the Senate race, it seemed pretty clear that the Democrats, Tim Kaine, thought this was worth playing up, and George Allen would rather play it down. But it remains to be seen how it really plays out.
NNAMDITim Kaine is a Democrat. He's also a Catholic and likes to make that known that he is personally not in favor of abortion, but he doesn't want to set policy for women on that issue. Here is Jeremy in Alexandria, Va. Jeremy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEREMYHi. I am, you know, pretty strongly pro-life, and I'm in favor of the regulation because I think it will make some of the women think a little bit harder, a little bit more before they partake, you know, before they have an abortion. I think it's very sad that, you know, that women have to face this choice. I think many times it's not their choice but rather being forced upon them.
JEREMYAnd I think it's really sad because people just don't get this basic idea that it's wrong to kill an innocent life and that biologically there's never been any greater evidence that life begins at conception. You don't have to be religious to believe that. It's just basic by all.
NNAMDIWell, Jeremy, earlier this year, legislators passed a law in Virginia requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before terminating their pregnancies. That law was quickly pilloried and ridiculed nationwide. It put the term transvaginal ultrasound into the national conversation. Now, the intent of that law was similar to the intent you just expressed, to have women think a little longer about undergoing this procedure. Were you also in favor of that law?
JEREMYI think that law was pretty invasive, and I know that -- I mean, I know that what the intent was because when you hear the beating heart, you see the body parts, it really hits you that that is a human being. It's not a toaster oven or a puppy dog or a cactus. And I think -- but I do think that was pretty strong. I think ultimately a lot of people don't realize that the fertilized egg has got everything it needs to be a human being, except for nourishment and the proper environment, which, you know, a 1-year-old needs, a toddler needs, you and I need.
NNAMDIWell, Laura Vozzella, anti-abortion activists eventually retreated a bit on that law. Tell us a little bit about what the back story there. Is there any likelihood that we might see a similar move on this?
VOZZELLAWell, I don't know. Certainly, in both cases, we've seen a lot of zigging and zagging on all of -- on the progress of both laws. As you know, the transvaginal ultrasound bill became such a flap that then they backtracked on that and made it an abdominal ultrasound which in some ways actually pleased no one because for people who were pro-life they were frustrated because the abdominal ultrasound will not yield an image in the early stages of pregnancy.
VOZZELLASo that -- so from their perspective, from the perspective of Delegate Bob Marshall, who is one of the most outspoken pro-life members of the General Assembly, he said, well, this will just reinforce the idea that there's nothing to see there, that -- and, of course, the pro-choice people were upset because you were still imposing a test and a test that will, again, yield no image and serves no medical purpose. So they pleased no one with that. With this -- the abortion clinic regulations, the story is not over here yet either.
VOZZELLAThere is still a long process before these are formally and finally adopted. They go back to the attorney general's office for review to make sure they comply, in his view, with the law. That's what happened between now and -- between June and last Friday, that the attorney general's office reviewed them, said they did not comply with the law. And so he kicked them back to the Board of Health. He's unlikely to do that this time. So then they would move up to Gov. McDonnell's office. He's probably likely to sign it.
VOZZELLABut then become -- there's a period of public comments where they will pose these regulations and people will have a chance to comment on them. And then they go back yet again to the Board of Health. That'll be some time next year. So meanwhile, these clinics don't quite know where -- what's up, but they have -- there were already emergency regulations basically to the same effect imposed on them quite a while ago. Well, actually, the clock started ticking once they were formally licensed under the law.
VOZZELLAAnd they have two years to conform with those emergency regulations, so the clock is ticking on that, so most of these 20 clinics will have to start submitting plans, showing their intention to make the architectural changes even though they haven't formally finally been adopted.
NNAMDIJeremy, thank you for your call. Here is Diana in Montgomery County, Md. Diana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANAOh, Kojo. I'm going to need the rest of the show to say everything I've got to say.
NNAMDIThen try to make it brief.
DIANAI used to live in Virginia. I went to law school in Virginia. I had an abortion in Virginia. And I feel like what the state is doing to women is horrific. This is unbelievable. I cannot believe I'm reading this. I mean, here's a society, here's a world that depends so heavily on women being part of the workforce, on women having control over the reproductive process, and we're telling them, oh, we're going to start discussing contraception again.
DIANAI mean, this is unbelievable. It's surreal. I wonder what Bob McDonnell is thinking as he's watching his attorney general drag him to the far right. And here's Bob McDonnell, who clearly had national aspiration. And here's his attorney general heading off to the dark cases...
DIANA...with the board, you know, threatening the Board of Health and, oh...
NNAMDIDiana, before we go off, thank you very much for your call. I'd like to talk with Sam in Herndon, Va. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMI -- thank you for allowing me to speak today because I am a conservative person, not a Republican by any means. And I feel that it is not the rights of our government to tell us what to do whatsoever when it comes to abortion issues, reproductive rights, religion and that talking about abortion is like talking about closing the barn door after the horse already got out. There are so many other issues facing our kids, our teenagers in regards to sex.
SAMAnd it seems as if the right wing part of the state seems to want to go in that direction and sell themselves out for commerce instead of actually talking about the real issues because abortion is the end of all of the problems that we have, not the beginning.
NNAMDILaura Vozzella, these ideas for anti-abortion legislation are nothing new within the Virginia Republican Party. But for many years, these bills were often bottled up in committee by moderate Republicans or blocked by Democrats when they control the Senate. Do you think that kind of institutional resistance still exist within Richmond today, or is this a kind of review or preview that social issues will play more of a role going forward in the Virginia legislature?
VOZZELLAWell, it seems to have -- that bottleneck seemed to have been broken with the elections last November that gave, well, let the Senate split -- evenly split 20-20 between Democrats and Republicans. But then with the lieutenant governor's vote, these -- the Republicans had control of the Senate. And so suddenly, a lot of bills that never did get out of committee were getting to the floor of the Senate.
VOZZELLANow, whether or not that's actually a good thing for Republicans is another -- is an open question for Gov. McDonnell, even though he has been openly pro -- excuse me, pro-life governor. He's against abortion and he's not been shy about that. But at the same time, this certainly put him in an awkward spot this year as he was perhaps hoping to be part of the Romney ticket. And he certainly stepped in when that vaginal ultrasound issue became just, you know, so prominent nationally.
VOZZELLAHe stepped in and got that toned down and very quickly after he helped make a bill -- personhood bill, which would've declared that life begins at conception. He made that go in -- away in a hurry. So that's -- that shows you that it's a little bit awkward for those who are trying to get the swing vote as well as the base.
NNAMDIYeah, the independent and the moderate voters. Laura Vozzella is a Virginia reporter with The Washington Post. Laura Vozzella, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take short break. When we come by, the Bug Guy, Michael Raupp, joins us about mosquitoes, West Nile, stink bugs, how the hot summer affected the insects we're seeing right now and what you may look forward to or not in the fall. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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