On Wednesday, a new law takes effect in Virginia eradicating restrictions that “were really a successful driver in people not getting abortions,” said one activist.
A little over eight years ago, Virginia was the state that tried to force people seeking an abortion to have a transvaginal ultrasound. This week, it becomes one of the only states in the country this year to roll back abortion restrictions.
Back in 2012, the ensuing ridicule around forcing transvaginal ultrasounds led then-Gov. Bob McDonnell and the Republican legislature to back down on their initial proposal. But they still passed restrictions that require people seeking an abortion to endure medically unnecessary “counseling,” waiting periods, ultrasounds, and more.
Those laws will soon be off the books in Virginia. Earlier this year, the General Assembly, held by Democrats for the first time in more than a decade, voted to remove the restrictions. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill in April, an event that was easy to miss amid the coronavirus pandemic. The law, called the Reproductive Health Protection Act, goes into effect July 1.
The changes come as the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a Louisiana law that would have made abortion barely accessible in the state. The nation’s highest court found Monday the state’s hospital admitting privileges requirement unconstitutional.
Although Virginia did not count among its restrictions that targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law, which requires physicians who provide abortions to have admitting privileges from a nearby hospital, the ones it did have in place almost certainly would’ve remained if the General Assembly hadn’t voted to remove them earlier this year.
Virginia abortion providers and activists say the effects of their legislation will be profound, removing unnecessary and confusing hurdles to reproductive health.
“For a lot of patients, they didn’t understand why there was a mandatory delay,” Dr. Shanthi Ramesh, the medical director for Virginia’s Planned Parenthood, said in an interview. “They knew this was not a pregnancy they could continue, for whatever reason, and so a lot of patients would express shock and disbelief, anger. We hear a lot of ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get back here again.’”
The 24-hour waiting period and forced ultrasounds added additional costs and logistical hurdles, including finding and paying for child care for a second appointment, paying for transportation and the ultrasound, and more time away from work. And for many Virginians, abortion providers are hours, not minutes, away.
“In theory, a 24-hour delay for most of our patients resulted in a much longer delay,” Ramesh said.
In addition to the unnecessary delays, Ramesh said it was bewildering for patients to have to sit through a government-mandated speech from their provider before getting an abortion.
“Patients became very confused about which regulation they needed to follow, when they could be seen, who was requiring what, and what was part of standard medical care,” Ramesh explained. “Why is this different than care they might get for a miscarriage, for example, which is managed identically? It just became very confusing for patients.”
The laws (HB 980 and SB 733) passed by Democrats will get rid of the ultrasound requirement, the 24-hour waiting period, and the mandated speech that forced providers to review abortion alternatives. It also allows nurse practitioners to offer first-trimester abortions, a move that could significantly increase the number of abortion providers in the state. And it eradicates a requirement that facilities providing five or more first-trimester abortions per month be designated as a hospital.
Ayé Johnson works directly with the community through the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project, which provides logistical help for people seeking abortions, ranging from finding transportation to child care to places for patients to stay if they are traveling a long distance.
“It relieves a burden, because these laws were really a successful driver in people not getting abortions,” Johnson said in an interview. “They need reliable child care, they might be gone for more than one night, and with 70 to 80% of people in the state more than an hour away from a provider, it is a big ask logistically.”
Johnson said the requirements for a second trip were particularly challenging for people who are experiencing intimate partner violence and cannot get away undetected for an overnight trip. They recounted that one volunteer drove between Charlottesville and Richmond and back, two days in a row, to help a patient who had to get through the 24-hour period.
“When I think about Virginia’s abortion shut down rules, what I remember is standing out in line in December, when it was freezing cold at 3 a.m. in Richmond, to get a spot to testify,” when a conservative politician arrived right before the meeting in a limousine and cut the line, Matson said. And now?
“It feels amazing,” Matson said. “We have shown a blueprint to the nation for how a state that appears entrenched in radical reactions and backward thinking can move forward and shine a light. Ten years ago, Virginia was the laughing stock of the nation and Gov. Bob McDonnell was coming after women with vaginal probes,” Matson said.
But this victory shows that “voting really matters, organizing really matters. We’ve been told by people who may be well-meaning that abortion politics are too difficult, and that is simply not true,” Matson said.
This victory isn’t the end of the fight for abortion access in Virginia for these activists. Johnson said the requirements getting repealed in July are definite progress, but there was still plenty of work to be done.
“This is a good first step, but it is not a big relief. Our work isn’t changing dramatically,” they explained, “because the barriers to access continue.”
One of the biggest issues Johnson sees is “youth empowerment” and ending the ability for judges in Virginia to reject a minor’s request to get an abortion without parental consent.
Johnson also said Virginia needed to decriminalize abortion and get laws that make anything related to abortion a crime off Virginia’s books, even if they are not enforced. And abortion needs to be covered by insurance, Johnson said, to reduce the cost barrier to access.
Decriminalizing abortion will also be important if future Supreme Court rulings chip away or eradicate abortion access. Although the Supreme Court ruled against the Lousiana law, anti-abortion activists have pursued a strategy of pushing the Court to narrow abortion access in as many states as possible. If the Supreme Court eventually says states can levy such requirements, Matson thinks this fight could start all over again.
“Having been going down to Richmond from northern Virginia for ten years, if the Supreme Court issues an unfavorable decision allowing state level restrictions and forced shut down laws to come back, no question they will try to bring it back to Virginia,” Matson said. “No question in my mind.”