NBC12 Investigates: Will the new abortion law shut clinics down?

RICHMOND (WWBT) - It has the potential to shake up women's health in Virginia in a big way. Landmark legislation to regulate abortion clinics in the commonwealth will soon become law. But are the changes meant to keep women safe or just out of abortion clinics?

It is an issue filled with political rhetoric.

"A vote for this bill is a vote against a woman's constitutional right to reproductive freedom," said Del. David Englin (D-Alexandria) on the floor of the House of Delegates during debate on the new law.

"What this does Mr. Speaker is make them (women) safe," countered Del. Jackson Miller (R-Manassas)

This time that heated debated resulted in a new state law. Abortion clinics that perform 5 or more first trimester abortions in Virginia must now comply with a special set of regulations.

A board of medical professionals will determine what those exact regulations will be. That doesn't mean the debate is over.

"There is a lack of trust from the general public," said Dr. John Pierce, an OB-GYN at VCU Medical Center who supports the new regulations.

Dr. Wendy Klien, an internist, who specializes in women's health, is very much opposed to the new plan.

"This is irreparable damage being done," she said.

Currently abortion clinics are regulated like any other doctor's office, including offices that do outpatient surgical procedures, like pulling wisdom teeth or colonoscopies.

Statistics prove that the procedure is safe. A recent study by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists revealed that the chances of dying in a first trimester abortion procedure are 10 in 1 million. The Guttmacher Institute has research that claims simple complications occur in less than one half of one percent of first trimester procedures.

Dr. Pierce, who will not perform abortions, believes the focus should not be placed on how infrequent the complications occur, but what could happen when they do.

"While an abortion does not have high risks," he said. "The risks can be very serious."

And when something goes wrong, it goes wrong very quick.

"I had a patient recently in what we thought was a relatively routine DNE, have massive hemorrhage," said Pierce.

Dr. Klien is supports a woman's right to choose. She believes that Dr. Pierce and other abortion opponents are overstating the risk.

"We are targeting this procedure and the reason has not to do with science or with evidence based medicine, but rather to do with politics and religion," she said.

Klien believes that politicians in Richmond care little about the safety of a woman and much more about putting an end to abortion.

"I do know that the regulations are designed to encumber these clinics that provide this service," she said.

Clinics like the ones operated by Planned Parenthood, perhaps the most high profile abortion provider. They run seven different locations in the Commonwealth. Jessica Honke is the organization's Director of Public Policy.

"In rural communities there are hardly any providers and the providers that are there may not be able to meet those requirements," Honke said.

The new law could create requirements that would mandate significant and costly structural changes to older clinics. Providers may be forced to widen halls and build a covered entrance.

Kim Warburton operates the Richmond area's only crisis pregnancy center. A facility designed to offer an alternative to abortion. Warburton once served as the administrator to a dentist office and said regulation is a vital part of quality patient care.

"We were required to meet certain regulations to protect the patient and to protect the health of the community," said Warburton.

But opponents believe this heavy handed attention to abortion ignores statistically riskier procedures like plastic and oral surgery.

"We have targeted just this procedure," said Dr. Klein." We aren't targeting other procedures which are statistically probably more dangerous."

Doctor Pierce however, views abortion unto itself, and welcomes the opportunity for the standards to be increased across the board.

"As a medical professional as an educator, I would want the highest standard available for physicians and for the people of Virginia," he said.

But in 2011 the standards only apply to abortion. And there are no plans to extend regulation to any other procedure.

The Board of Health will reveal their regulations in September. But their recommendations are only a suggestion. The final say over exactly what is implemented will be up to Governor Bob McDonnell.

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