Trial begins in challenge to 4 abortion laws in Virginia

A trial began Monday in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn four abortion-restriction measures in Virginia.

The laws being challenged include a physician-only measure that bars nurse practitioners and physician's assistants from performing abortions.

The lawsuit also seeks to overturn Virginia laws mandating that:

-All second-trimester abortions must be performed at an outpatient surgical hospital or general hospital.

-Women must get an ultrasound at least 24 hours before the procedure.

-Abortion providers who provide five or more first-trimester abortions per month must undergo licensing requirements.

The trial began as the abortion debate intensifies nationwide. Several states have passed tough new anti-abortion laws, including Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio and Kentucky.

Lawyers for the women's health groups suing Virginia skipped their opening statement and began their case by calling Dr. Mark Nichols, a doctor who worked for years as the medical director of a Planned Parenthood chapter in Oregon.

"It is one of the safest medical procedures that exist," Nichols testified, as an attorney for the women's health groups, D. Sean Trainor, walked him through various medical studies and papers on abortion.

Nichols said he believes the laws being challenged in Virginia are not medically necessary. He said the vast majority of abortions are simple procedures that can be done in an office setting and that he has trained many physician's assistants and nurse practitioners who have done "just as good a job as the physicians" performing abortions.

"There's no medical reason to add these layers of regulation," he said.

During cross-examination by Courtney Paulk, a lawyer for the state, Nichols acknowledged that he formed his opinion about Virginia's abortion laws without ever observing an abortion in Virginia or ever talking to any abortion providers in the state. He also acknowledged that although there is a low rate of complications during abortions, some more serious complications would require a woman to be hospitalized.

Paulk also questioned Nichols in an attempt to show that Virginia is not an outlier when it comes to its physician-only law. Only 16 states allow nurse practitioners and physician's assistants to perform medication abortions, and only five allow non-physicians to perform suction aspiration abortions.

The trial is expected to last about two weeks. U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson will decide the case, not a jury.