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Virginia health care providers sue state over abortion laws from 'a bygone era'

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A group of women's health care providers filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to overturn a number of Virginia's abortion regulations in light of a landmark 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The lawsuit filed in federal court challenges Virginia laws, some decades old, that restrict who can provide an abortion and how it can be provided. The plaintiffs argue the laws are unconstitutional obstacles to care that are not supported by medical evidence.

Dr. Shanthi Ramesh, medical director of the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood, said during a conference call that Virginia politicians created the restrictions "in a bygone era" to make abortion inaccessible. "That era is over," she said.

The lawsuit was filed against Virginia's health commissioner, other state health officials and local prosecutors responsible for enforcing some of the laws being challenged. It seeks to have the laws declared unconstitutional and prevent them from being enforced.

Maribeth Brewster, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health, said she couldn't comment on pending litigation. Attempts to reach the other plaintiffs for comment were not immediately successful.

The abortion providers say they are taking action in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2016 decision that struck down a Texas law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and forcing clinics to meet hospital-like standards for outpatient surgery.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president of Whole Woman's Health, which sued over the Texas law, said that case affirmed that abortion laws must be based on medical evidence.

"We're using this new standard to affirmatively strike at the core of the Commonwealth's burdensome restrictions, some dating back decades, that are based on ideology, not health or science," she said in a statement.

Among the Virginia laws being challenged is one that treats abortion as a crime and another that requires women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound at least 24 hours before it is performed, unless the pregnant woman lives 100 miles (160 kilometers) or more from the facility. Another requires medical facilities that provide five or more first-trimester abortions per month undergo licensing requirements which, according to the plaintiffs, have no legitimate medical basis.

"These burdens are not mere inconveniences. They are insulting, stigmatizing and often devastating to our patients who are forced to endure them," said Rosemary Codding, founder and director of the Falls Church Healthcare Center, one of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit is being brought by attorneys for the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the ACLU of Virginia on behalf of the plaintiffs.

A spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, an abortion-rights advocate who supported Whole Woman's Health's efforts to strike down the Texas restrictions, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.

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