Pro-choice groups say recently released draft regulations governing abortion clinics in Virginia would be the most stringent such measures in the country and are part of a politically motivated plot to undermine the rights of women to access abortions.
The Virginia Department of Health on Friday issued the highly anticipated rules after a bill passed during last year's General Assembly session 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.
"We're disappointed the Virginia Department of Health apparently has ignored sound science and drafted regulations designed to limit access to safe, legal abortion services," said Jessica Honke, public policy director for Planned Parenthood advocates of Virginia. "We believe they go beyond any existing regulations seen in other states."
Republicans who supported the bill say the main issue is ensuring the health of women who seek abortions at facilities that currently are regulated in the state as out-patient clinics, such as cosmetic- and oral-surgery centers.
"Fewer will be injured," said Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican and bill supporter. "If the abortion-reform people simply want to make abortion safe, they should have no opposition to these regulations. The fact that they oppose them is indicative of another motive."
Opponents of the measure had previously estimated that the new rules could force up to 17 of the state's 21 abortion clinics to close.
Abortions that occur after the first trimester must be performed in hospitals in Virginia.
The regulations require abortion facilities to meet certain building requirements based on the "2010 Guidelines for Design and Construction of Health Care Facilities of the Facilities Guideline Institute," which, for example, dictate the size of operating rooms, among other requirements regarding management and record-keeping.
Ms. Honke said that the rules would require women's health centers to meet extensive physical plant guidelines intended more for brand-new buildings, rather than existing structures.
"It could force substantial architectural changes to women's health centers [and] threaten the ability of safe, legal first-trimester abortions in multiple locations throughout the state," she said.
The proposed regulations had to 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. Kaine, a Catholic, also waded into the fray, saying that abortion is an important moral issue, and a moral discussion would be warranted — "but we shouldn't try to criminalize the decisions of women or their health care providers," he said Friday on WAMU radio's "The Politics Program."
"I know about this effort," Mr. Kaine said. "There was this effort underway when I was governor, but the proponents of it are admittedly trying to overturn Roe versus Wade by other means to make it virtually impossible for a woman to make that choice. I oppose it — I think they ought to just be honest about their intentions."
The conservative Family Foundation, which has for years lobbied for tighter restrictions on clinics that perform abortions in the state, declined to comment until it had time to review them over the next couple of days.
"Once we have analyzed what has been proposed, we will determine what our next steps will be," said Chris Freund, a spokesman for the group. "Should we find the proposed regulations adequately meet the health and safety standards we believe are necessary, we will urge Virginians to contact the Board of Health and encourage adoption of the regulations.
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 have 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.
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