On Monday, Virginia became the latest state to feel the ripple effects of the landmark June Supreme Court decision that struck down two common types of abortion restrictions in Texas.
The Virginia State Board of Health, after hours of comments and deliberation, voted to rescind restrictions placed on abortion clinics by Senate Bill 924, which requires abortion clinics to meet the same standards as outpatient hospital facilities. The costly renovations — which include requirements like installing drinking fountains and widening hallways and janitor’s closets — are often more than clinics can afford, forcing them to shutter their doors.
These restrictions in Virgina fall under the umbrella of a larger anti-abortion strategy known as “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers,” or TRAP laws. These laws — which proponents insist are necessary regulations to protect women’s health — impose a costly maze of red tape and regulations on abortion clinics. Unable to comply with the law, many clinics are forced to close, making it more difficult for women to receive safe reproductive health care.
Indeed in 2013, the requirements in Virginia forced the state’s busiest clinic, NOVA Women’s Healthcare, to close. In addition to providing abortions, the clinic had also provided birth control and other health care to thousands of women, according to a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
Besides being costly for clinics, pro-choice advocates have pointed out many of the restrictions are medically unnecessary, and aren’t imposed on other outpatient procedures that actually pose greater risks, such as colonoscopies, dental surgery, or laser eye surgery. The rate of serious complications for first-trimester abortion is less than 0.05 percent, and the mortality rate is even lower; you are 40 times more likely to die from a colonoscopy than an abortion.
The Supreme Court agreed. In the June SCOTUS decision striking down portions of Texas’ law, Justice Breyer wrote that such “unnecessary health regulations” posed an “undue burden” to women’s constitutionally protected right to abortion. The two TRAP provisions at issue in Texas — one requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and one requiring clinics to meet the standards of “ambulatory surgical centers” — fell immediately.
Crucially, the Supreme Court decision clarified the standards of an “undue burden”: laws imposing regulations must result in a health benefit outweighing the burden the restrictions pose on access to care. And, given how pervasive TRAP laws have become, the case immediately began to have ripple effects.
Virginia’s restrictions are just the latest to fall. As a result of the decision, similar restrictions almost immediately toppled in Alabama and Wisconsin. And other TRAP laws are currently being challenged in Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas on the grounds of the recent SCOTUS decision.
Using the newly clarified definition of “undue burden,” the ACLU is also using the decision to challenge an Indiana law requiring women to see an ultrasound 18 hours before receiving an abortion, whether she wants to or not. Previously, women could obtain the ultrasound immediately before receiving abortion care, but the new law forces women to make two potentially expensive trips — without, according to the ACLU, providing any medical benefit.
Research has previously shown that women who decide to get abortions are very certain about their decisions when they present for care, and are very unlikely to change their choice based on waiting periods or ultrasounds.
Monday’s decision in Virginia was welcomed by pro-choice advocates.
“Advocates have been saying for years that the restrictions in Virginia are designed only to close clinics and make abortion difficult, if not impossible to access. We are proud that today’s vote brings our abortion regulations in line with the rights protected by the Constitution,” Gail Deady, The Secular Society Women’s Rights Legal Fellow at the ACLU of Virginia, said in a statement of Monday’s decision.
However, while the Board of Health’s decision will have an immediate impact, the law in question is still on the books.
“The vote today is not a permanent solution,” Deady said. “It is now up to the legislature to do theirs and repeal the statute in full.”