Bristol, Virginia city council moves to ban new abortion clinics
Move follows backlash after Tennessee clinic moved across the state line
Bristol Regional Women’s Center has been providing abortions in Bristol, Tennessee, for years. Now that the procedure will soon be mostly illegal in the state, it had an idea: help open a clinic a mile across town ― and the state line ― in Bristol, Virginia, where abortion remains legal. (Sam Whitehead / KHN)
Elected leaders in Bristol, Virginia are pushing forward a zoning law that would prohibit new abortion clinics within city limits, part of a local backlash against a Tennessee clinic that made the short move across state lines once Roe v. Wade was overturned.
The five-member Bristol Virginia City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted in favor of the resolution to ban any facility that “intentionally causes(s) the death or termination of a pre-born human life at any stage of development.”
The resolution, which must go through several additional steps before becoming law, also stops existing clinics from expanding or undergoing renovations.
Bristol’s effort to restrict abortion clinics is among the first by a local government in a state like Virginia — where abortion remains legal — since the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to an abortion in June. Two other Virginia cities, Tazewell and Russell, have also enacted resolutions declaring themselves a “sanctuary for the rights of the unborn.” Neither of those cities has an existing abortion clinic.
The state does not dictate what every local district does. City Council has full authority to stop other abortion clinics from coming here.
– Bristol, Virginia Councilmember Kevin Eads
But these cities’ early efforts to harness land use ordinances or other local laws to bar abortion clinics may not be the last. Abortion bans or severe restrictions in nearly half the states in the nation have prompted clinics in cities where the procedure is newly illegal to move to cities where it still remains accessible, but not universally supported.
“It feels like this may be the first of many,” said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks public policy for the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights.
Bristol’s vote Tuesday was in direct response to the opening of the Bristol Women’s Health Center in July. The center had operated a few miles from Virginia in the twin city of Bristol, Tenn. for more than 30 years, before making the move across state lines to continue to provide services to patients in the surrounding Appalachian region. The relocated clinic remains the closest abortion provider to patients in Knoxville, Kingsport and elsewhere in northeastern Tennessee.
Bristol Councilmember Kevin Wingard called the zoning measure “the most important issue” ever to come before city leaders. He contends the city has the legal authority to stop abortion clinics from coming to town.
“The state does not dictate what every local district does,” Wingard said. “City Council has full authority to stop other abortion clinics from coming here.”
It’s unclear whether those claims can pass legal muster.
Local governments typically do not attempt to regulate clinics providing abortion, which until this year was a federally protected right. With the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, states now have the authority to regulate or restrict abortion rights. Bristol’s legal authority to enact new zoning laws that ban new abortion clinics remains in question.
Randall Eads, Bristol’s city attorney, said he was in the process of reviewing the language of the ordinance and would provide his legal assessment to the Bristol City Council at their Nov. 15 meeting.
“I have completed some preliminary research, but I have not made a conclusion as to whether the language of the ordinance, as written, could withstand a legal challenge,” Eads told the Lookout.
The Virginia-based Family Foundation, which has long advocated against abortion and aided in the drafting of the proposed zoning regulations, said in a statement that “Bristol, Virginia has been a ‘good place to live’ and residents imply want to ensure that it remains so, for both born and unborn community members.”
Nash said the local efforts are sending a more ominous message.
“One of the things that has struck me about this is the message it’s sending to patients is you don’t matter; this community doesn’t care about your needs,” she said. “It sends a very bad message to people accessing healthcare, particularly when we’re seeing that people are traveling hundreds of miles.”
Text of proposed Bristol Virginia resolution
No land, building, structure or other premises located within any zoning district of the City of Bristol may be used to carry out any practice, process, or procedure that is designed to intentionally cause the death or termination of a pre-born human life at any stage of development. The already existing use of any buildings or structures for such purposes must conform to this regulation whenever they are enlarged, extended, reconstructed, or structurally altered, and any nonconforming building or structure may not be moved on the same lot or to any other lot in order to carry out the nonconforming use.
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