Virginia Becomes Battleground For Abortion Clinic Zoning (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Virginia Becomes Battleground For Abortion Clinic Zoning

MS. EMILY BERMAN

00:00:03
We'll stay in the realm of health for a moment, but switch from ending the flu, something we can all agree on, to the far more divisive topic of abortion. Earlier this week, a judge in North Dakota issued a temporary ban on a law that would prohibit abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detectable. Other states, including Wisconsin, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas and North Carolina are also immersed in legal battles surrounding abortion.

MS. EMILY BERMAN

00:00:31
Closer to home, in Virginia, the state's busiest abortion clinic, NOVA Women's Healthcare, closed earlier this month, after declaring it couldn't comply with the strict new regulations at the state and local level. Lauren Ober headed to the now-shuttered offices of NOVA Women's Healthcare in the city of Fairfax, to find out what happened.

MS. LAUREN OBER

00:00:53
For 18 months, Regis Eannarino stood on the sidewalk in front of NOVA Women's Healthcare and prayed. He clutched oversized rosary beads and a sign that read, Pray To End Abortion, and passed out fliers proclaiming the evils of abortion to anyone who would take them. His goal was simple, to close the Fairfax clinic, which was then the largest abortion provider in Virginia.

MR. REGIS EANNARINO

00:01:16
There's a certain confidence I have at this point to say, you know, I think this signals the beginning of the end of abortion in America, if we just understand the power of a consistent prayer vigil.

OBER

00:01:27
Three weeks ago, the clinic closed. Eannarino called his efforts a success. But the shuttering of NOVA Women's Healthcare wasn't just the result of prayer. An eleventh hour change in the city's zoning laws prevented the clinic from reopening in a different location. It all came down to one parking space, or rather, the lack of one.

OBER

00:01:48
Zoning isn't the sexiest topic, but it's one that can have dramatic implications for healthcare clinics that provide abortions. Alena Yarmosky of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia says anti-abortion activists in Virginia and around the country are increasingly targeting zoning laws to limit access to abortion clinics.

MS. ALENA YARMOSKY

00:02:07
This is the next battleground on where reproductive rights are being fought. It's in the states, and even more than that, it's local. And it also is all about cutting off access to healthcare.

OBER

00:02:19
That healthcare includes cancer screenings and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, services Yarmosky says are provided at most abortion clinics in Virginia.

YARMOSKY

00:02:29
Unfortunately, when you cut off access trying to justify it on the abortion side, not only do you deny a constitutional right, but you also block access to a variety of means of prevent unintended pregnancy, like birth control and like sex education.

OBER

00:02:45
This focus on zoning first emerged in Virginia in 2011 with the passage of what are known as TRAP Laws. These targeted regulations of abortion providers require abortion clinics to meet structural and staffing requirements that may or may not have anything to do with patient care. Think the size of janitorial closets, the style of faucet or the number of awnings on windows. Here's how Yarmosky explains it.

YARMOSKY

00:03:10
What it is is an attempt to single out abortion providers for regulations and requirements that are not required of other doctors' or dentists' offices. And so in Virginia, the TRAP law requires abortion facilities to comply with hospital-style standards. In Virginia, any facility that performs over five abortions a month has to basically transform itself into a surgical center in order to remain open.

OBER

00:03:39
TRAP laws work on the state level, but, increasingly, municipal governments are getting in on the debate. NOVA Women's Healthcare initially closed because of a dispute with its landlord. But when it tried to reopen at a new location in Fairfax City, the city council quickly changed its zoning ordinance to require all clinics to get a special-use permit and approval from the council.

OBER

00:03:59
The amendment also changed the definition of a clinic from a doctor's office to a medical care facility. The council defended the new ordinance, saying it was designed to allow the council and the public to have a say on the location of medical facilities in the community. "Metro Connection" tried repeatedly to get a hold of Michelle Coleman, Fairfax City's zoning administrator, to talk about the recent changes, but she did not respond to our calls or emails.

OBER

00:04:24
Reproductive rights advocates see regulations like the ones in Fairfax City as onerous and unfair. But anti-abortion activists, like Ruby Nicdao, view them as a way to give the community a voice.

MS. RUBY NICDAO

00:04:35
Before it was just a zoning administrator, and if they met specific requirements it was just a green light, go ahead. And the community would never have a say and the city council wouldn't have a say. So I thought it was a great thing for the community.

OBER

00:04:48
Before April, 20 abortion clinics operated in Virginia. That number has since dropped to 18 with the closure of NOVA and another clinic near Norfolk. Currently, 88 out of 95 Virginia counties have no abortion providers. Alena Yarmosky, of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, worries that the reproductive rights landscape is only going to get worse as more municipalities enact ordinances like the one in Fairfax City.

YARMOSKY

00:05:13
What that means is that if we get to a certain point, women might not be able to access abortion and might find themselves in a situation where they want to take their pregnancy or their medical care into their own hands. And that's very dangerous.

OBER

00:05:24
Anti-abortion activists counter that the changes that clinics are forced to make were enacted with women's safety in mind, but both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association agree these restrictions are medically burdensome and are not about patient safety. Yarmosky says the increasingly hyper local tactics of anti-abortion activists are game changers. She hopes the efforts inspire vigilance among her organization's supporters.

OBER

00:05:53
Meanwhile, anti-abortion activists Ruby Nicdao and Regis Eannarino have already turned their attention to other clinics in Northern Virginia. They're hoping that the closure of NOVA Women's Healthcare is just the beginning. I’m Lauren Ober.
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