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Virginia Becomes Battleground For Abortion Clinic Zoning

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Anti-abortion activists Ruby Nicdao and Regis Eannarino outside of the former location of NOVA Women's Healthcare, which closed in early July.
Lauren Ober
Anti-abortion activists Ruby Nicdao and Regis Eannarino outside of the former location of NOVA Women's Healthcare, which closed in early July.

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, then the largest abortion provider in Virginia. In 2012, NOVA performed more than 3,000 abortions.

"There's a certain confidence I have at this point to say this signals the beginning of the end of abortion in America if we just understand the power of a consistent prayer vigil," Eannarino says.

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. It was also the result of Fairfax City’s zoning laws.

Regulation abortions through zoning

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.

"This is the next battleground where reproductive rights are being fought. It's in the states, but more than that it's local," Yarmosky says. "And it's also all about cutting off access to healthcare."

That healthcare includes cancer screenings and treatment for sexually transmitted infections — services Yarmosky says are provided at most abortion clinics in Virginia.

"Unfortunately when you cut off access trying to justify on the abortion side, not only do you deny a constitutional right, but you also block access to a variety of means of preventing unintended pregnancy like birth control and sex education," Yarmosky says.

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.

"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. In Virginia, the TRAP law requires abortion facilities to comply with hospital-style standards including construction requirements," Yarmosky says. "Any facility that provides more than five abortions a month has to basically transform itself into a surgical center in order to remain open."

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. When the clinic applied for a permit to reopen in a different location, the request was denied because of inadequate parking. Shortly after that, Fairfax City Council changed its zoning ordinance to require all clinics to get special-use permits and approval from the council.

The council also changed the definition of a clinic from a doctor's office to a medical care facility. Mayor Scott Silverthorne says the new regulation was designed to allow the council and the public to have a say on the location of medical facilities in the community.

"We're a small city — about 6.3 miles — largely a residential community, so the impact of businesses on the residents in the city is disproportional," Silverthorne says. "And the council felt very strongly that when you deal with issues of medical uses and the impact of things such as surgery centers, nursing homes and the like, that the council ought to have a say in it."

Silverthorne says other businesses like pizza shops, drive-thru bank tellers and veterinarian's offices are also subject to the same special-use permit process.

Fewer options for women

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.

NOVA's former home is an office building on Eaton Place. It's so nondescript, you'd never know a healthcare center ever operated out of there. On a recent weekday, I met Nicdao outside the defunct clinic to talk about the progress she thinks pro-life activists are making around the state.

"Before it was just the zoning administrator, and if they met specific requirements, it was just a green light go-ahead," Nicdao says. "And the community would never have a say and the city council would never have a say. So I thought it was a great thing for the community."

Before April, 20 abortion clinics operated in Virginia. That number has dropped to 18 with the closure of NOVA and another clinic near Norfolk. Currently, 88 out of 95 Virginia counties have no abortion providers. 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.

"What that means is that at 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," Yarmosky says.

Anti-abortion activists counter that the changes that clinics are forced to make were enacted with women's safety in mind.

That doesn't hold water with Cianti Stewart-Reid, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. Planned Parenthood operates seven centers in Virginia. Four of those offer surgical abortion.

"The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association and medical experts here in Virginia agree that these restrictions are not about patient safety," Stewart-Reid says. "They are medically unnecessary and burdensome. And they're clearly designed to make it more difficult for women to access care."

Stewart-Reid says she hopes this hyper-local approach to anti-abortion activism doesn't take root in Virginia. She's currently talking with the mayor of Fairfax City about devising fair zoning laws that don't single out women's healthcare centers that provide abortions. And she's making sure that all of Planned Parenthood's Virginia clinics comply with all regulations, both state and local.

But both Yarmosky and Stewart-Reid say the increasingly hyperlocal tactics of anti-abortion activists are game-changers. They hope the efforts inspire vigilance among their supporters. 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.


[Music: "Spotless Mind" by Jon Brion from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]

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