- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

RICHMOND – The first state inspections of abortion clinics under Virginia’s new regulations revealed unsafe and “utterly disgusting” conditions such as spilled blood and fetal remains in the bottom of a freezer, a conservative organization said Wednesday.

The Family Foundation of Virginia released three inspection reports obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act. The regulations, mandated by the General Assembly, were implemented on an emergency basis Jan. 1.

“Some of this is just horrific,” foundation president Victoria Cobb said in a statement. “Even with time to prepare for announced inspections, these centers were found to be what I think most reasonable Virginians would deem unsafe in many cases and utterly disgusting in others.”

Abortion rights supporters and clinic operators responded that the foundation was exaggerating in hopes of influencing Friday’s decision by the Virginia Board of Health on making the rules permanent

“It is not a coincidence that this early data on inspections, which only tells a half story – and a misleading one – is released just two days before the board of Health is to vote on the regulations once again,” the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women’s Health said in a statement.

The board approved the regulations in June but stripped out the most hotly contested provision, which would have required all clinics to meet the same standards as new hospital construction.

However, Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II the next month refused to certify the regulations, declaring that the board had overstepped its authority because the legislation passed by the General Assembly mandating the regulations specifically requires the tough architectural standards. Now, the regulations are back before the board for another vote.

“We’re not saying we don’t want to be regulated,” said Shelley Abrams, executive director of A Capital Women’s Health Clinic in Richmond. “We’re saying the architectural standards are unneeded and are not for public safety, but are intended to try to shut us down.”

Ms. Cobb said, however, that abortion providers maintained for years that their practices were safe and that they did not need to be regulated. She said the inspections – the first since the emergency regulations took effect – proved otherwise.

“And now we’re supposed to trust them that the construction standards are also unnecessary?” she said.

The Family Foundation said reports on nine clinics listed 80 violations on issues including infection prevention, drug storage and dispensing, poor equipment maintenance and no background checks for employees.

The inspection report for A Tidewater Women’s Health Clinic in Norfolk listed a number of sanitary issues, including the spilled blood and conception matter in the freezer.

“It does paint kind of an ugly picture,” the clinic’s medical director, Dr. David Peters, said in a telephone interview. “People are going to envision these little babies lying in the bottom of the freezer, but they’re not.”

He said the clinic only does first-trimester abortions, and the “products of conception” have to be stored until they can be picked up by a hazardous waste company for proper disposal, just as a plastic surgeon would have to store fat extracted by liposuction. He said a bag just happened to burst, creating the mess in the freezer.

“The freezer was 10 yards away from any patient contact,” he said.

Dr. Peters said some of the inspectors’ observations were flat wrong, and none of the violations affected patient care.

“I’ve been here since 2005, and we’ve never had a major complication,” he said.

Ms. Abrams‘ clinic also was cited for multiple deficiencies, including failure to change a cleaning solution every time dirty implements were brought to a sink.

“If the Health Department thought there was some kind of public danger they could shut us down immediately,” Ms. Abrams said. “As far as I know, no one was shut down a single day.”

The Coalition to Protect Women’s Health noted that all nine of the abortion clinics that were inspected received their licenses to operate after those inspections. One of them was Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.

“Anything brought up in our inspection report was corrected immediately,” said Erin Zabel, spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach clinic.

In all three reports, each violation was accompanied by an explanation from the clinic of how the deficiency was being corrected.