New Year, New Abortion Restrictions

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell obviously wasn't looking for any attention when he certified a set of new regulations last week that could shutter many abortion clinics in the his state. The Republican certified the new requirements on the Friday between Christmas and New Years, and chose to forgo a public announcement about his decision. But low-profile or not, the decision is an scary one for the state's 20 abortion clinics, which now must get to work to comply the 2010 building code for hospitals. That means a lot of very costly changes that have no bearing on the work these clinics do, like widening hallways and doorways and installing hands-free sinks (the kind that automatically turn on when you put your hands underneath the faucet). Advocates for reproductive rights say many of the state's 20 abortion facilities could be forced to close—which is, of course, the whole idea.

But McDonnell's decision to make the move as quietly as possible indicates a significant change in the purple state. Last year, he took heat almost everywhere when his fellow Republicans tried to pass a bill requiring that women seeking abortions receive an sonogram and listen to a description of the fetus. Opponents seized on the fact that early-stage abortions would likely require a transvaginal ultrasound in order to see the fetus, meaning a wand would be inserted into a woman's vagina. Some activists called it "state rape" and protests took off across the country. Republicans in several other states abandoned similar efforts.

"They took it on the chin last year," says Larry Sabato, a political scientists at the University of Virginia. Sabato says the controversy helped pave the way for the state to go Democratic, both in the presidential race and in the race for a U.S. senate seat. 

Sabato says the Republican leadership in the state senate and general assembly is determined this year to avoid the same anti-abortion controversies that drew so much attention last year. "It doesn't help the majority of Republicans who really don't want to deal with those subjects," he says. Unlike most states, Virginia elections take place odd-numbered years, so the state general assembly, as well as some senators, will be up for election this year. Most don't want to deal with defending laws promoted by the extremists in their party.

Some of the most extreme anti-abortion lawmakers have already pre-filed bills to further limit access, most notably Representative Bob Marshall, who last year sponsored a failed effort to extend full legal rights to fetuses, but Sabato says this year, such efforts aren't likely to go very far. "One thing I can tell you for sure," he said. "Leadership is going to bury as many of Bob Marshall's bills as possible."

While the current Republican legislative leadership seems eager for a culture-war disarmament, there's still plenty of looming danger for reproductive rights advocates. Tarina Keene, executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, which led the effort to kill the sonogram law, pointed to Marshall's bills, including three that would limit insurance coverage for abortion and contraception. Meanwhile, current attorney general Ken Cucinelli is running for governor and has set himself up as one of the state's most outspoken anti-abortion voices. In the fight over building regulations, Cucinelli threatened to withhold state legal defense from members of the state health board if they grandfathered in any clinics from the new mandates. 

But there's no guarantee such a platform will win in the state. Virginia is not Texas—while McDonnell tiptoes around his anti-abortion policies, the latter's Governor Rick Perry has prominently called for a bill to ban abortions after 20-weeks, known as a "fetal pain" bill. "Virginia and Texas used to be very much alike politically," Sabato says. In the last 12 years, however, Texas has remained deeply conservative, while Virginia is increasingly Democratic. Holding off-year elections, when turnout is lower, tends to benefit Republicans, but folks like McDonnell are obviously trying to tread carefully. Cucinelli will likely face a tough election; Republican lieutenant governor Bill Bolling may challenge him as an independent, and Democrat Terry McAuliffe has thrown his hat into the race as well.

For women's health advocates, however, the governor's race is far away. Despite the national outrage, an amended version of the sonogram law did become law in Virginia—women seeking an abortion must still undergo an ultrasound, though not specifically a transvaginal one. The newly certified building-code regulations could result in closures and further decreased access. McDonnell may have muted the political impact of the decision, but the practical implications are still just as ominous.

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