Obviously, there's a lot going on the world these days, but today in Virginia - a key swing state in the presidential election, as well as potentially the key to control of the U.S. Senate - the Republican War on Women ratched up another notch. What happened was that, under tremendous pressure from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli - who knows what Romney ally, Gov. "Transvaginal Bob" McDonnell was up to on this one - the Virginia State Board of Health reversed itself today and moved to shut down abortion clinics in Virginia. Again, I know there's a lot of important stuff going on in the world right now, but it seems like that's worth paying a few minutes, or actually a lot more than that, attention to. As my colleague at Blue Virginia, KathyinBlacksburg, reports:
This afternoon the Virginia Board of Health deliberating health regs for abortion clinics rejected two attempts to grandfather existing clinics proposed by Jim Edmonson. They rejectd a process for waivers also promoted by him. And they pushed through a final vote in supported of the rigid regs, which lined up with Ken Cuccinelli (the AG) and Transvaginal Bob (VA Gov.) 13-2.
Next, I'll offer some additional impressions, gatherred from several Twitter feeds and what I was able to hear through U-Stream. Although advocates from both sides tried to attend, and some pro-choice supporters were in the hearing room, it appears the audience was largely anti-choice. The Board announced one time for opening the hearing room and another (earlier) one when it became available, catching the pro-choice people short.
Groups supporting choice, including the ACLU indicated that many, perhaps a hundred or more were kept from the hearing room and had to watch in another room. Additionally, the Board strictly limited the statements by many health advocates and cut off the public comment period. And it appeared the fix was in. It makes you wonder. Where is the democracy?
Here's a statement from the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women's Health.
STATEMENT FROM THE VIRGINIA COALITION TO PROTECT WOMEN'S HEALTH:
"In its vote today to subject women's health centers that provide abortion to medically unnecessary construction requirements, the Board of Health succumbed to pressure from the ideologically motivated Cuccinelli administration in the most unprecedented move in the Board's history. This is a terrible day for the women of Virginia - and all of us who object to the partisan politicizing of public health." - Tarina Keene, chairwoman; executive director, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia
Contact: Caty Borum Chattoo, 310-927-4752
Virginia Board of Health Votes Against Medical Advice in
Today's Vote to Limit Access to Women's Health Care in Virginia
Virginia's public health officials succumb to pressure from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in vote to regulate abortion in Virginia
Richmond, VA, September 14, 2012 - In a vote today that goes against medical counsel, the Virginia Board of Health agreed to subject existing women's health care centers to building and construction requirements that only apply to new hospital construction; the decision is part of the McDonnell administration's proposed draft regulations of women's health care centers that provide first-trimester abortion.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a vocal anti-abortion advocate, will now determine whether or not to certify the Board of Health's vote. If certified, the regulations will go to Governor McDonnell to approve or reject. This process includes a 60-day public comment period, after which the regulations will go back to the Board of Health for another vote.
By voting to "grandfather in" existing women's health care centers so that they face forced construction requirements intended only for new facilities, the Board of Health under the McDonnell administration has voted against both medical counsel and the application of the 2010 Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities, which has been a focal point of the debate over the past year. The Board of Health, under Virginia law, has never applied the building guidelines in this way - in each and every past instance, the Board has applied the guidelines only to new construction.
"Attorney General Cuccinelli has been bullying the Virginia Board of Health with implied threats and use of 'legal fiction' to mislead the Board's members about their own legal authority," said Kathy Greenier, co-chair of the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women's Health and Director of the ACLU of Virginia's Women's Rights Project. "We are now traveling down a very dangerous slippery slope in which political ideology and partisan bullying are dictating medicine and public health in Virginia."
The new building requirement could cost up to millions of dollars for women's health care centers and force many of the 20 Virginia women's health care centers to close. The regulations do not apply to any other outpatient medical service in the commonwealth, including vasectomies, dental surgery, liposuction and more.
The vote represents a substantial shift in the Board of Health's decision-making about the proposed regulations of first-trimester abortion in Virginia. As its most recent meeting, on June 15, the Board voted to grandfather in existing women's health care centers as is appropriate under Virginia law. Since then, Governor McDonnell appointed a publicly anti-abortion medical doctor, Dr. John Seeds, to join the Board of Health; Dr. Seeds sits on the board of the anti-abortion advocacy group, The Family Foundation.
On July 16, 2012, a letter from Attorney General Cuccinelli's office to Dr. Karen Remley, commissioner of the Virginia Dept. of Health, stated that his office refused to certify the Board's vote in this matter because the Board had "exceeded its authority." However, the Attorney General's assertion was wrong. The Board has the legal authority to grandfather in existing women's health centers and their June vote upheld medical opinion and the appropriate application of the building guidelines.
The regulations were drafted by the Virginia Department of Health, but Attorney General Cuccinelli recommended substantial changes in a process that illustrates a new trend in creating ideologically-driven state law through the regulatory system, despite lack of public approval. When the regulations become law, they will be enforced by the Virginia Department of Health, which incorporates counsel from Attorney General Cuccinelli. Despite the administration's official public statement about "safety and wellbeing of patients" as rationale for the regulations, Attorney General Cuccinelli has stated publicly to at least one pro-life organization that the goal is to "end abortion in America" (see video interview with Pro-Life News from May 8).
An open letter from a group of 177 medical doctors and health professionals in Virginia was published in last week's Richmond-Times Dispatch; in the letter, the authors state that they "appeal to the Board to resist these outside influences and urge the Board to make its decision on the basis of impartial, professional and scientific information... It is about the Virginia Board of Health as an independent, objective, public health advisory group that acts with impartiality in weighing scientific evidence. We must not travel down a dangerous slippery slope where we allow political forces to dictated medical care."
More information can be found at the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women's Health website, www.coalitionforwomenshealth.org, and on Twitter @vacoalitionwh and Facebook.com/virginiacoalitiontoprotectwomenshealth.
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ABOUT THE VIRGINIA COALITION TO PROTECT WOMEN'S HEALTH
The Virginia Coalition to Protect Women's Health formed in 2011 as a response to the attack on women's health and safety prompted by Senate Bill 924. The Virginia Coalition to Protect Women's Health strives to protect and ensure access for all women in all regions of Virginia to safe first-trimester abortion and comprehensive reproductive health care services. The Coalition is committed to ensuring any regulations are based solely on medical and public health considerations. The Coalition is opposed to excessive, burdensome or unneeded regulations that undermine patient access to medical care for political or ideological purposes. Members, partners and allies include: ACLU of Virginia, Annandale Women and Family Center, Center for Reproductive Rights, Falls Church Healthcare Center, Feminist Majority Foundation, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, National Abortion Federation, NOVA Women's Healthcare, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, Progress Virginia, Richmond Medical Center for Women, Virginia NOW, and Virginia Organizing.
Here's a statement from State Senator Donald McEachin, a progressive champion:
Senator McEachin Expresses Dismay and Concern Over Board of Health Decision
Henrico - Senator A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) expressed his strong concern and dismay over the Board of Health decision today. Senator McEachin said, "Although I am extremely disappointed in the Board of Health decision about the clinic regulations, I am even more dismayed and appalled by the process that occurred. For the Attorney General, whose responsibility is to represent the Commonwealth, to inform board members who are acting in service to the Commonwealth, that he will not defend them if they take certain positions, is simply outrageous and unacceptable. He has put his ideological political agenda ahead of his primary responsibility as Attorney General. Moreover, as an attorney he should recognize his responsibility to his client and to provide legal services to that client, not to refuse because he disagrees with them.
"I was further troubled by the decision to close the meeting and to severely limit public input. This is a public Board; this is a decision that impacts Virginians and Virginians were there to express their opinion. We have a responsibility and an obligation to allow people to be heard and to take their input. This egregious behavior by the Board today can only further the notion that they had made up their minds, perhaps bullied by the Attorney General, and that today's vote was a foregone conclusion. For the thousands who signed petitions, for the many citizens who came prepared to speak and to hear the Board's rationale, this is a slap in the face and an insult to the way the Commonwealth should conduct their affairs. Virginians expect and deserve better," Senator McEachin concluded.
Here's a statement from Democratic Attorney General candidate (election next year) Mark Herring:
It is deeply disturbing that Virginia's Attorney General can act outside the scope of his legal authority, threaten and bully a Board he is charged to represent and successfully intimidate them into reversing a policy decision that the Attorney General personally disagrees with.
Here's some political analysis
This episode only underscores the need for an Attorney General who will take the politics out of the office and apply laws evenly and fairly.
from my Blue Virginia colleague Paul Goldman, former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
And here's a statement from NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
Board of Health Rejects Grandfather Amendment in Vote to Apply Proposed Regulations to Existing Women's Health Clinics
Decision could force up to twenty Virginia women's health centers to close
On Friday, September 14, the Virginia Board of Health defied the recommendations of legal and medical experts in voting 13-2 to subject existing women's health centers to burdensome buildings regulations. After months of pressure tactics by Attorney General Cuccinelli, the Board reversed its earlier decision to grandfather in existing clinics and exempt them from the medically unnecessary regulations. If signed into law, these regulations will force up to twenty women's health centers in Virginia to shut down.
"We are stunned by today's vote, and extremely disappointed in the thirteen Board of Health members who decided to put political ideology before evidence-based scientific fact," said Tarina Keene, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. "Hundreds of voices were silenced today."
More than 300 pro-choice advocates were shut out of the vote, despite repeated requests to move the meeting to a location that could accommodate public discussion. Among those denied the chance to speak were several legal and constitutional experts, set to testify that in rejecting the Board's June vote, Attorney General Cuccinelli had exceeded his authority and undermined the Board's decision-making power. Several physicians and clinic advisors were also blocked from testifying on behalf of the nearly 200 Virginia doctors who urged the Board to reject political pressure and protect women's access to essential medical care.
"It is unprecedented to force existing health centers to comply with building regulations intended for new construction, and the Board acted well within its authority in voting to amend these regulations in June," Keene said. "We will continue to stand for women's health, despite this administration's attempt to silence us. Virginians are sick of playing politics with women's lives."
Just thought you'd all like to know...