Virginia board OKs stiff rules for abortion clinics

Heated testimony preceded vote

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RICHMOND — The Virginia state Board of Health on Thursday passed new regulations for abortion facilities that critics say are among the most stringent such measures in the country and could result in the shuttering of the majority of the state’s abortion providers.

The board voted 12-1 Thursday to pass the temporary regulations after impassioned public testimony and hours of deliberations by members of the board.

The new rules would require existing facilities that provide five or more first-trimester abortions per month to meet the same standards as surgery centers built after 2010, including rules on specific architectural standards, staffing levels and medical supplies.

“I think that things were done very professionally and thoroughly and thoughtfully,” Chairman Bruce Edwards said after the board’s vote.

But outbursts among the crowd of about 100 erupted more than once during the public comment period and the board’s lengthy debate, prompting Mr. Edwards to gavel down one shouting woman. A man who yelled comments that the board deemed inappropriate was ushered out of the room.

The board heard from 32 speakers, with opponents — who have contended that the rules were a backdoor attempt to deny women access to abortions — outnumbering supporters by a ratio of about 2-to-1.

Dr. William Nelson, a former official at the state Department of Health, said there was “no shred of data that supports that this procedure is unsafe.”

He said the proposed regulations were part of a “sinister campaign” to push abortions to the back corners of society.

Supporters have maintained that the regulations are about ensuring women’s safety and that fears about shutting down abortion providers are overblown.

“The abortion industry in the United States is a billion-dollar industry,” said Chris Freund, a spokesman for the conservative Family Foundation. “They can afford these standards if they choose to meet them.”

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday seemed to suggest that opponents’ arguments had not gained traction with voters.

While 50 percent of respondents said they supported abortion rights, the survey of 1,368 registered voters showed that just a quarter of voters were familiar with the regulations. Of those, more than half, or 51 percent, approved of them.

Among other things, the rules would allow Department of Health employees to inspect facilities and be provided with patient medical records. They would not apply to surgery centers that provide other procedures, such as oral surgery or colonoscopies. Abortion clinics are regulated as outpatient facilities, as are oral and cosmetic surgery centers. Second-trimester abortions must be performed in hospitals.

The board passed the draft regulations, with several amendments, on a 12-1 vote. The lone dissenting vote was cast by James H. Edmondson Jr., a McLean developer.

Nine members of the Board of Health were appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican who favors the regulations, and six — including Mr. Edmondson — were appointed by Mr. McDonnell’s Democratic predecessor, Tim Kaine.

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