State Board of Health finalizes regulations for abortion clinics

ImageOn Friday April 12, the Virginia State Board of Health voted 11-2 in favor of finalizing regulations for health and safety standards of abortion clinics that opponents fear could force some facilities to close.

Located just off of North Main Street, the local Planned Parenthood could face closure if they don’t comply with the new regulations.

Read our previous coverage on these regulations.

“They are an unfortunate and unnecessary intrusion into patient services,” said Cianti Stewart-Reid, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, of the law.

The regulations will require that any facility where five or more first-trimester abortions per month are performed, must meet the minimum standards for construction set for new hospital buildings.

In 2012, the Blacksburg Planned Parenthood provided 104 induced terminations of pregnancy.

Many pro-choice groups are concerned about the effect on Planned Parenthood facilities across the state, which provide a range of health services ranging from oral contraceptives, treatment of STDs and cancer screenings to abortions.

“It has the potential to (cause health centers to close) if they’re unable to comply with the restrictions,” said Stewart-Reid. “As a result, women would lose access to all the other services that are also provided at those centers.”

Among the regulations, those regarding design and construction could prove costly for many health centers.

However, President of the Virginia Society for Human Life Olivia Gans Turner does not foresee Planned Parenthood facilities closing due to the costs associated with regulated changes.

“Planned Parenthood has made a lot of noise… and yet Planned Parenthood will not shut its doors,” said Gans Turner. “They make a great deal of money off this business.”

Planned Parenthood, which receives money from the federal government, reported excess revenue of over $87 million for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. That same year, federal funding provided over $524 million to the organization.

The law states that the health centers will be required to maintain structural standards that include a five-foot width for public hallways, larger janitorial closets and a minimum of four parking spaces for each surgical room in the facility.

Opposition claims the regulations are a way to restrict women’s access to abortion.

“I think there’s no doubt that (the regulations) are politically motivated, and they clearly put politics above women’s health,” Stewart-Reid said.

Gans Turner, who has had an abortion, supports the actions of legislators.

“The Virginia Society of Human Life is very pleased with the (actions of the legislature) two years ago, making this proposal an effective law,” said Gans Turner. “The fact that the General Assembly saw fit to provide this protection for women… under the law, I think is a positive move.”

There have been additional arguments that the structural regulations in particular are not medically necessary.

“I’m disappointed that the Board of Health… did not listen to the medical experts who’ve made it very clear that these regulations are not medically necessary and will not improve women’s health care,” Stewart-Reid said.

The chair of the Board of Health and representative for EMS, Bruce Edwards, thinks otherwise, due to his experience in EMS.

“I think that the whole purpose of this… is to ensure that the places are safe and they are clean,” said Edwards. “From the standpoint of the structure, there needs to be adequate room in all these facilities so we can work on and take care of the patient.”

According to Edwards, each of the 20 abortion clinics in Virginia were issued licenses with corrective notices for simple fixes like placement of hand wash basins and sanitation aspects, as well as for more complicated, structural issues.

While changes to health care facilities in accordance with these regulations will be made by summer 2014, only one facility has expressed that it will not be able to comply with new regulations.

Upon inspections by the state medical examiner, 12 of the 20 clinics are in the process of, or are already in compliance.

Virginia is not alone in creating these types of regulations. Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Arkansas and Pennsylvania have adopted similar laws.

The recent death of a woman during an abortion procedure has provoked Maryland legislators to take action as well.

“This is a preventative and protective, reasonable action that is warranted. Unchecked abortion (clinics) sometimes become… unwilling to protect the women who walk into their doors,” Gans Turner said.

Planned Parenthood representatives assure pro-choice advocates that the organization will not be shut down overall.

The Blacksburg location for Planned Parenthood and the Roanoke Health Center are not sure how these regulations will affect their business or facilities just yet.

The Virginia Department of Health held a public comment period for two months in which over 6,000 comments were submitted. Of these comments, over 4,000 were in opposition to the new regulations.

Ten Virginia Senators, who originally voted in favor of the legislation in 2011, have recently expressed disapproval of the finalized regulations.

In a statement from nine of those senators, they said “The Attorney General’s office is incorrect in their interpretation… the (legislation) never required existing facilities to need new construction codes.”

Twenty-eight public commenters also shared the opinion that existing facilities be grandfathered in, and that construction guidelines should only apply to new health care facilities.

The Board of Health included a grandfather clause in its original write-up of regulations, however, they were forced to remove it in September 2012 after the General Attorney’s office deemed the clause was outside their realm of authority.

Medical professionals have also spoken out against the regulations.

“Such onerous and expensive structural facility requirements are not rationally related to enhancing the safety of first-trimester abortion procedure, nor prevent potential complications,” said Dr. Stephan Bendheim, chairman of the Department of OB/GYN at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital, in a comment to the Board of Health.

Twenty-two Virginia delegates as well as the former chair of the Virginia State Board of Health, Fred Hannett, spoke in opposition to the regulations as well.

Though the regulations have already been passed, pro-choice groups won’t give up the fight.

“We will continue to organize our supporters to speak out against these regulations and to hopefully get them overturned,” Stewart-Reid said.


New Virginia law allows for restrictive membership

The story you’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived!

To read about the struggle, click here.

Photo Illustration by BradA new Virginia law on student organizations at public colleges is rousing feedback from critics and causing student groups at Virginia Tech to take public action.

The law, passed last week, would give student organizations the ability to base membership decisions off of whether a person’s religious or political beliefs align with those of the organization.

The law states that religious or political based student groups can decide that “only people committed to the organization’s mission” are allowed to join or run for leadership positions. Public universities are prohibited from “discriminating against a student organization that makes such a determination” about its core functions.

Some, though, are questioning the motives of those supporting the bill, and are concerned about the effects it will have on the LGBT community and religious groups especially.

“I think it’s a well-crafted way to allow student organizations to discriminate,” said Caroline Sapyta, junior environmental resource management major and president of the LGBTA.

Michael Sutphin, member of the Blacksburg Town Council, board member at Equality Virginia and Virginia Tech alumnus, agreed.

“On its surface, the bill is written to make it sound like it is protecting freedom of speech or freedom of association,” Sutphin said. “Really, it’s a way for student groups to circumvent campus anti-discrimination policies.”

The bill passed in the Senate 22-18 and in the House 73-27 in February. The votes fell mostly along party lines in the Senate, with four Democrats voting in favor of the bill, and Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the legislation into law last week.

However, not all students see the bill as a means of discrimination, but rather a way to ensure groups on campus are not threatened by lack of funding for being selective about membership.

Harrison Bergeron, sophomore biology major and vice president of the Libertarians at Virginia Tech, thinks that the bill can impact the LGBT community positively.

“A club (could) decide that they don’t want someone in their meetings, who for 90 minutes would say ‘whatever you’re doing is completely immoral’,” Bergeron said. “I would see it as a very positive thing, specifically for the gay community.”

Students react

The legislation has caused some student groups at Virginia Tech to take action.

Nick Onopa, senior public and urban affairs major and undergraduate representative to the Board of Visitors, helped draft a letter to be sent to McDonnell on behalf of BOV representatives asking him to veto the bill.

According to Onopa, the gist of the letter was that Tech, as an undergraduate study body, would not support the law because of the values of community and mission of the university to provide service to all, not just some.

According to Bergeron, the Libertarians at Virginia Tech planned to send a letter to the Commission on Student Affairs, whose members helped draft the letter to the governor, “to remind them they don’t speak on behalf of us.” They also planned to send a letter to the governor expressing their support of the law.

The Student Budget Board is also currently working on changing its bylaws to avoid funding groups who adopt discriminatory membership policies.

“We will not allocate funds to organizations that discriminate,” Onopa said.

All-Comers Policies and Hastings

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Hastings Christian Fellowship v. Martinez. At the University of California at Hastings’ law school, a religious club required all members to subscribe to a statement of beliefs. The school then denied the organization recognition as a school club because of it.

The question in the case was whether or not public universities can use all-comers policies, or policies that require groups to accept all comers regardless of their beliefs, to deny official status and funding to groups.

With a 5-4 vote, the Court supported the all-comers policies, and the ability of a public institution to cut funding to, and even expel an organization, if the policy is not upheld.

This is exactly what Virginia’s new law intends to avoid.

According to Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-26th) who proposed the bill, it was meant to protect freedoms of assembly and association in student organizations in response to Hastings and to clarify Virginia’s position on all-comers policies at public universities.

“I think (groups who don’t like the law) are seeing demons where they don’t exist,” Obenshain said. “It doesn’t do what some of these groups that are criticizing it seem to think that it does. I hope they will be reassured.”

This law is not the first legislation of its kind. Ohio adopted a similar law last year banning “all-comers” policies.

All-comers policies became a problem at Vanderbilt University last year, when fifteen Christian groups lost their funding and access to facilities after refusing to confirm the new policy.

“It protects the freedom of association that is inherent in the first amendment … which, presumably, is a value worth preserving,” Obenshain said.

Obenshain assures the law has a neutral viewpoint, protecting the rights of every group equally, and is also not meant to undermine current protections in place by state and federal law.

“This (law) protects the LGBT groups just like it does some group with conflicting values,” Obenshain said. “I would think they’d want to limit membership and leadership to people who want to protect the LGBT values and protect the rights of the LGBT community,” Obenshain said.

The rights of groups: to exclude or to not exclude?

There are those who support and oppose the exclusivity of student organizations. Obenshain, however, thinks students should be able to meet exclusively.

“I believe that student groups … ought to be free to organize on the basis of shared beliefs,” Obenshain said. “I think that’s an important part of college experience and college life and academic and personal freedom.”

Sutphin, though, points to a different part of the college experience.

“(You) are supposed to be able to interact with people with different beliefs than you,” Sutphin said. “Clubs are exactly the kind of place where … it would be good to engage in those kinds of dialogues about religion, politics, sexuality and those sorts of issues.”

Bergeron, however, believes groups should have the right to restrict membership to students who agree with their mission.

“The point of having a club isn’t to have everybody and their mothers in it,” Bergeron said. “It’s designed for a specific group of people who believe a certain thing … and you have a right to assemble in the way that you wish to.”

The law will go into effect on July 1, 2013.

What I get for wanting to try something new

I have been working on a story for the Collegiate Times for the past month and it’s proving to be the most challenging story I’ve ever attempted to write.

I’m definitely not complaining; I did it to myself. Originally, my editor wanted to assign it to someone else, because one of the groups discussing the issue is the Residence Hall Federation (RHF) of which I can be considered a member due to my involvement in Hall Council in my residence hall. I really wanted the story so I hit the ground running, getting contacts and information, setting up appointments to talk to people until she agreed to give me the story assignment and wow, did I dig myself a hole.

The story is about some recent legislation that passed in the VA State Senate regarding the ability of college organizations at public universities to make membership decisions based on whether a person’s political and/or religious beliefs align with those of the organization. The legislation is SB 1074, if you’d like to read more about it. It’s currently sitting on the Governor’s desk waiting to be signed into law, but some students at Virginia Tech are feeling uneasy about this seemingly discriminatory bill, some feel negatively enough to take action against it. The real kicker is that the senator sponsoring the bill is Mark Obenshain, a Virginia Tech alumnus, married to Suzanne Obenshain, another Virginia Tech alumnus and member of the Board of Visitors.

The conflict, the relevance, the significance- all the makings of a great story were right in front of me and I wanted it for myself. It’s one of the only times I’ve ever actually fought for something I wanted and it was so gratifying when my editor let me have it. I’d never written anything political, but I was so excited to try. However, more and more I’m finding that this story is too good to be true; more and more I’m finding that the story an angel dropped into my hands, is really a story from Hell.

It’s been a nightmare trying to contact the Senator, but it’s not hard to figure out why a person would prefer not to talk about it, to a reporter of all people. It’s a sensitive subject, considering the bill is being widely criticized as a step toward making discrimination legal, in particular, discrimination against the LGBT community by religious organizations. This bill would make legal the denial of membership to a homosexual man from a Christian organization on the basis that his sexuality does not align with the core beliefs of the organization, i.e. Christianity. Still, if I were a senator sponsoring a bill, I would want people to know the reason behind it and maybe want to contradict some of the criticisms surrounding it and would jump at the chance to voice my opinion to a reporter, especially if I’m an alumnus of the school housing the newspaper. I guess that’s just me.

My editor wants a draft of this story on Friday with or without the input of the Senator. I really hope he decides to get back to me.

Update: The senator eventually called me and we had a great conversation. To read the finished story, click here.

Bill sitting on Gov. McDonnell’s desk to affect student organizations

Thursday, February 28, 2013

To read the follow up piece on this legislation, featuring an exclusive interview with the senator who sponsored the bill, click here.

To read about my frustration with writing the follow up piece to this story, click here. -This one is probably more dramatic and entertaining than the actual article.


Policy changes are currently underway in the Virginia General Assembly that will affect every student organization in Virginia’s public universities.

The bill, known as SB 1074, allows religious and politically centered student organizations to determine membership based on whether an individual’s political and religious beliefs align with those of the organization.

The Senate of Virginia passed the legislation on Feb. 5 with 22 votes in favor and 18 against.

“I interpret it as only applying to religious and political organizations in the language, but it can be taken in many different directions and probably manipulated just like any law can,” said sophomore Kylie Gilbert, finance and accounting major and president of Residence Hall federation. “Once you open that door for discrimination against people based on their beliefs, then that could get out of control,”

The bill, pertaining to public institutions of higher education, also prohibits those institutions from discriminating against organizations that implement these policies.

“With certain organizations — unless that organization is infringing on certain policies of the school — the college probably shouldn’t be able to tell them what they can or cannot do in a sense of who they allow in depending on their own rules,” said sophomore Jaxon Taylor, biology pre-med major.

The sponsor of the bill, Republican state Senator Mark Obenshain, is an alumnus of Virginia Tech and is married to a member of the Tech Board of Visitors, where she serves as committee chair of the Academic Affairs Committee.

In the Virginia House of Delegates, legislation HB 1617, identical to SB 1074, was passed by a vote of 73 to 27 on Feb. 18 and was signed by the Speaker of the House, Republican William J. Howell, on Feb. 21.

One of the main points of controversy surrounding the bill is its potential to restrict members of the LGBT community from participation in certain religious organizations.

On Thursday, the Commission of Student Affairs discussed the legislation in reference to its relevance to the Tech community and possible action to take against it.

“I believe that it violates Virginia Tech’s principles of community and the aspirations for student learning because curiosity means being able to learn from a bunch of different perspectives and that’s why we have student organizations,” Gilbert said.

According to Nick Onopa, junior public and urban affairs major serving as undergraduate representative for the Board of Visitors, a letter is currently being drafted on behalf of all student organizations in Virginia asking the Governor to veto the bill.

If the bill gets passed, there has already been discussion in the budget board of cutting funding to any organization at Tech that implements such discrimination protected by the bill in their policies.

Patty Perillo, vice president for student affairs, expects this movement to receive national attention.

“This is a moment in time where CSA and students’ power is really taking hold,” Perillo said. “I’ve been struck at times where students don’t have the sense of their agency and their power, you as students have incredible power to make changes at this institution and state-wide.”