A doctor who provides first-trimester abortion services in Virginia is criticizing anti-choice officials for imposing medically unnecessary restrictions on her job.
Writing in an op-ed published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this week, Dr. Sara Imershein laments that the abortion clinics in her state are forced to adhere to “medically unnecessary and burdensome architectural requirements” that “ignore patient health and safety.” Even though those policies have been framed in terms of protecting patients’ best interests, the doctor says that premise is “frankly ludicrous.”
In 2012, Virginia’s health department approved new regulations that require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as outpatient hospital facilities. That involves making costly renovations to their buildings — like installing drinking foundations, expanding hallways, updating ventilation systems, and widening janitor’s closets — that many clinic owners simply can’t afford.
The health department’s clinic guidelines have sparked significant controversy over the past several years. Immediately after they were approved, Virginia’s health commissioner resigned in protest, saying she could not continue to serve in that position in good faith. Soon after Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) was elected last year, he ordered a review of the policy, putting in motion a complex process that could eventually overturn the rules.
Proponents of the current regulations claim they’re necessary to ensure that abortion is as safe as possible for the women who seek the procedure. But Imershein — who writes that she has “dedicated my entire professional life to advancing, protecting and ensuring the health of my patients” — firmly disagrees.
“As a medical provider who actually performs first-trimester abortions in Virginia health centers, I know firsthand this pretense is incorrect, and frankly ludicrous,” Imershein writes. “Doctors like me have been providing safe abortion in health centers and doctor’s offices for decades, and the complication rate for abortion is lower than any other similar outpatient procedures, such as colonoscopy, laser eye surgery and dental surgery.”
The rate of serious complications for first-trimester abortions, defined as issues that may land a woman in the hospital, is less than 0.05 percent. The mortality rate is even lower. You’re 40 times more likely to die from a colonoscopy than from an abortion.
On top of that, it’s not hard to see that the clinic regulations are largely arbitrary. Virginia law allows OB-GYNs like Imershein to provide four or fewer abortions per month in a typical doctor’s office. It’s unclear how that’s any different than performing the same procedure at a women’s health clinic, or how exactly abortion will be safer in clinics with wider hallways and bigger closets.
Nonetheless, the assumption that abortion is a dangerous medical procedure is a pervasive one, and it’s currently operating as one of the biggest threats to women’s reproductive rights. Virginia’s clinic rules fit into a larger strategy known as the “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers,” or TRAP, that’s rapidly advancing across the country. By requiring clinics to adhere to medically unnecessary standards, abortion opponents are successfully forcing them out of business one by one. And it’s all being furthered under the guise of patient health and safety.
There’s an ultimate irony at the heart of the current legislative landscape: The people actually tasked with caring for the health of their patients have consistently come out against regulations on clinics and doctors that are purportedly intended to improve patient health. Major medical associations are firmly opposed to TRAP laws, and doctors frequently testify against them in court.
But their objections haven’t done anything to stop state lawmakers from continuing to pursue TRAP. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of women of reproductive age now live in area where they’re subject to these type of restrictions. The majority of states in the country now have anti-abortion laws on the books that have no basis in scientific evidence.
“We’re talking about medicine — specifically, safe women’s health care,” Imershein writes. “On this topic, who better to trust than the people like me who actually serve patients — the doctors, nurses and medical experts of Virginia?”