Virginia’s former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was nothing short of obsessive when it came to his two-year crusade to shutter abortion clinics throughout the commonwealth. First, he pushed to have every women’s health clinic regulated as if it were a hospital, supporting a TRAP law (TRAP is short for Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) that requires changes to clinic hallway width, locker rooms, and parking lots. These regulations will cost clinics millions of dollars in unnecessary retrofitting and were not proposed for any other outpatient clinics, such as those performing plastic or oral surgery.
Cuccinelli then pressured the Virginia Board of Health to reverse itself on a ruling that would have grandfathered in existing facilities and applied the new regulations only to new buildings. The board caved after Cuccinelli wrote to its members indicating that they had exceeded their authority and that if they grandfathered in the existing clinics, his office would not defend them in any subsequent lawsuits. He went so far as to warn the board members that they could be personally liable in any litigation filed. In total, the estimate was that 17 out of Virginia’s 21 clinics would have had to either pay up or close altogether. Several clinics have closed so far. The rest have until June to comply with the new regulations.
Except: Cuccinelli lost the November gubernatorial race. And Monday morning, Gov. Terry McAuliffe launched National Women’s Health Week by announcing that he was not only going to nominate five more members to the state Board of Health (which has an enormous amount of authority with respect to reproductive freedom), but that he would also order the board to conduct an extensive review of Virginia’s TRAP laws. “I am very concerned that the extreme and punitive regulations that were adopted last year jeopardize the ability of most women’s health centers to keep their doors open and place in jeopardy the health and reproductive rights of Virginia women,” the governor said at a press conference. He further instructed Virginia’s health commissioner to enroll clinics in a government drug-pricing program, so patients could get discounted pharmaceuticals, and he ordered Planned Parenthood to offer more than 1,800 free HIV tests this year.
The fact that clinics in Virginia may now be able to stay open and that rural women may still be able to get health care, including preventive health care, despite the Virginia legislature’s best efforts doesn’t change the fact that TRAP laws are being passed all over the country, and they are passed faster than they can be challenged in court. Next week a federal court will hear a challenge to Alabama’s admitting privileges law, a law substantially similar to the one that has closed women’s health centers across Texas and threatens to close the last operating abortion clinic in Mississippi.
Women helped vote Ken Cuccinelli out of office in November. Specifically, black, Latina, and unmarried women turned out in huge numbers to support McAuliffe, who explicitly campaigned against the abortion regulations and pledged to be a “brick wall” against further efforts to restrict abortion rights. I don’t know a whole lot of people who were churning with excitement over McAuliffe’s election last November. But what happened today was a huge win for Virginia women and for reproductive freedom. At a time when courts are more and more receptive to TRAP laws, McAuliffe took it upon himself to push back against them. Or as a friend put it this morning on Facebook, “Terry McAuliffe: a great argument for the importance of lesser evils.”