Pro-choice activists in Virginia have begun a last-ditch campaign to undo restrictive regulations governing abortion clinics ahead of a required vote by the state's Board of Health to make the rules permanent.
Opponents on Thursday lobbied board members, the governor, the attorney general, the state's health commissioner and its health and human resources secretary, urging them to reject the "extreme targeted regulations on abortion providers."
Temporary rules that took effect in December call for existing facilities that provide five or more first-trimester abortions per month to meet the same standards as surgery centers built after 2010, including specific architectural standards, staffing levels and medical supplies.
The board plans to adopt permanent regulations before those expire at the end of the year. Members are scheduled to take up proposed permanent regulations at their June 15 meeting.
"I am writing to you as an individual, a citizen, a woman and a mother," Molly Taylor Vick of Richmond wrote to the 15 members of the Board of Health on Thursday. "I had not participated in this type of activism prior to the demonstrations at the Capitol this past General Assembly session. There are thousands of people just like me. [...] We seek to educate the board members, independent citizens like ourselves, to make the informed decision and vote against these partisan, targeted regulations which have no scientific basis or relationship to the health and safety you were appointed to protect."
Richmond saw a flood of protesters during the 2012 General Assembly session over a law that will require women to undergo ultrasound imaging before having an abortion and a failed "personhood" measure that would have defined life as beginning at conception. About 1,000 people took to Capitol Square on Feb. 20 in silent protest against such measures.
Proponents of the abortion clinic regulations say they are intended to protect the health and safety of women. Critics have decried them as politically motivated tools that could force most of the state's clinics to close. But 20 out of the 23 affected clinics in Virginia comply with the new requirements or plan to make changes to comply, according to license applications.
The Virginia Coalition to Protect Women's Health said that only non-construction requirements apply at this point. Clinics have two years to comply with the new structural requirements and may not be able to afford to do so even if that is their intent.
After legislation was passed by the General Assembly in 2011, the board approved temporary regulations in September that took effect in late December. Members of the board, who are political appointees, voted 12-1 in favor of the regulations. Nine of the members present were appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, and James Edmonson Jr. of McLean, the board's consumer representative and the lone dissenting vote, was appointed by former Gov. Tim Kaine.
The group behind Thursday's "flood" of opposition to the regulations is calling for members to oppose what they call TRAP regulations — an acronym for targeted regulations on abortion providers. One image on the group's Facebook page features a woman's reproductive organs with handcuffs shackling the fallopian tubes.
The draft version of the proposed permanent regulations is still in the works, said Joe Hilbert, director of government and regulatory affairs for the Department of Health. He said the department hopes to make them public in late May or early June.
The temporary regulations took effect Dec. 29 and remain in place for a year, though Mr. McDonnell can extend them for up to six months.
"The ultimate timeline is to make sure we have permanent regulations in effect before those emergency regulations expire," Mr. Hilbert said.
He did not say how the proposed permanent regulations compare to those in place now.
The draft regulations would then go through executive branch review and be published in the Virginia Register, after which a 60-day comment period would follow. After that, the board would come back to approve the final regulations and the governor would have to sign off at that point as well.
After a 30-day final adoption period, a regulation becomes effective unless it is suspended or at least 25 people request another public comment period.
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