Va. health department to release abortion-clinic regulations

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Pro-choice advocates say that they hope draft regulations from the Virginia Department of Health that impose hospitallike standards on the state’s abortion clinics will not end up restricting access for women seeking abortions in the state.

The regulations, expected to be released Friday, come after approval of perhaps the most controversial bill moved by the General Assembly in 2011 and mark a major victory for pro-life advocates, who for years saw similar legislation languish in committee in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, Hanover Republican, called on the Board of Health to develop regulations that would require facilities that perform five or more first-trimester abortions per month to meet the same standards for staffing, security, construction and maintenance as hospitals.

Abortion clinics currently are regulated in the state as out-patient clinics, such as cosmetic- and oral-surgery centers.

“It’s easily the largest and most significant pro-life victory in Virginia in a decade,” said Chris Freund, a spokesman for the conservative Family Foundation. “We’re hoping that what comes out is effective and makes abortion centers safer for women coming in them.”

Representatives of the Coalition to Protect Women’s Health, a consortium of Virginia groups that includes representatives from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia and NARAL Pro-Choice VA, however, expressed concern Thursday that the regulations could go too far and cut off access to women seeking abortions.

“Regulations that genuinely protect the health of the patient are critical,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.

Opponents of the measure previously had estimated that the new regulations could cause 17 of Virginia’s 21 abortion clinics to close because of potential new standards on measurements such as hallway width.

The proposed regulations must be published within 280 days of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s signing the bill in order to comply with the enacted law and are treated as “emergency regulations” not subject to the normal public comment and review process, which can take upward of two years or longer.

Of the 14 members on the current Board of Health, eight were appointed by Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, while six were appointed or reappointed by his Democratic predecessor, Tim Kaine. One seat is vacant.

Mr. McDonnell has not been in touch with either the board or the department about the regulation, said Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the governor.

Assuming the Board of Health adopts the regulations at its Sept. 15 meeting, the next step is executive branch review, which would pass through the offices of the state attorney general, the Department of Planning and Budget, Health and Human Services, and the governor’s office, said Joe Hilbert, director of government and regulatory affairs for the Virginia Department of Health.

Temporary regulations would be in place for 12 months while permanent rules are drafted, though Mr. McDonnell has the authority to extend them up to an additional six months.

Opponents of the law on Thursday lamented the lack of opportunity for public comment. Because of the accelerated time frame, the public will officially have only one opportunity to comment - at the board’s Sept. 15 meeting.

The public will, however, be given instructions on how to submit comments to the board in advance of the meeting, Mr. Hilbert said.

“We’re not required to do that by law, but in the spirit of open and transparent government, that’s what we’re doing,” he said.

Elsewhere in the country, a federal judge recently enjoined a Kansas law attempting to impose new regulations on facilities performing more than five non-emergency abortions per month and dictate specific requirements, for example, on the size and temperature of recovery and procedure rooms.

In South Carolina, a law that also requires abortion clinics to meet hospitallike standards has withstood legal challenges. Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II invoked the case when he issued an official advisory opinion last August saying that Virginia had the authority to regulate facilities that provide first-trimester abortions.

Abortions that occur after the first trimester must be performed in hospitals in Virginia.

Maryland is also in the process of drafting new regulations that require clinics to be licensed by the state, be subject to inspection and have a clinic staff member available at all times in case an emergency occurs.

Opponents have threatened litigation if the Virginia regulations prove too onerous, but Jordan Goldberg, state advocacy counsel for the U.S. legal program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said it was premature to discuss potential legal action before the regulations were published.

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