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Virginia joins pro-life wave with abortion clinic rules

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Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has signed off on permanent regulations that will hold abortion clinics to the same building standards as hospitals, joining Arizona and Michigan as states looking to tighten their abortion-facility standards to among the most stringent in the nation.

The new regulations come amid 43 abortion restrictions enacted by states last year — the second-most on record, after 92 such measures were adopted in 2011, according to a report released Wednesday by the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute.

About half the measures last year were passed in six states: Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. They include prohibitions on abortions after 20 weeks, when a fetus is deemed old enough to feel pain, and requirements that doctors prescribe abortion-inducing drugs in person rather than by teleconference.

Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, certified the Virginia regulations late last week, three months after they were adopted by the state's Board of Health. The regulations must now go through a 60-day public comment period and then will have to be finalized by the board and the attorney general before heading back to Mr. McDonnell for another approval before taking effect.

The guidelines regulate many architectural aspects of abortion clinics, such as the size of operating rooms, the number of sinks and the widths of hallways. Pro-choice groups have spent more than a year arguing that such regulations are unnecessary and will force many clinics to make costly renovations or go out of business. Mr. McDonnell contends that the new policy is strictly about ensuring proper care and health standards for patients.

"The governor believes these common-sense regulations will help ensure this medical procedure takes place in facilities that are modern, safe and well-regulated, in order to help ensure the safety and well-being of all patients," McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin said Wednesday in an email.

Michigan's regulations apply to facilities that perform at least 120 abortions a year, while Virginia's apply to those that perform at least five a month.

Arizona's regulations include mandates on follow-up procedures and reporting of complications.

The number of pro-life bills that have been introduced — and often enacted — across the nation has increased as Republicans have increased their strength in state after state in the past two election cycles.

Abortion and contraception were "front-burner issues" during the 2012 presidential election year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which noted in its report that pro-choice groups and their allies "were able to block high-profile attacks" on women's access to abortion in several states.

"That said, no laws were enacted this year to facilitate or improve access to abortion, family planning or comprehensive sex education," it added.

Among the most hotly debated issues last year was pre-abortion ultrasounds.

In early 2012, as many as 10 states were poised to require women to have ultrasounds to ensure they were fully informed about their pregnancy before they had an abortion.

The most notable debate occurred in Virginia over whether invasive transvaginal ultrasounds must be used to view very young fetuses.

The ensuing debate, which was lampooned on "Saturday Night Live," "blunted efforts" to pass ultrasound laws in at least three states, the institute said. Moreover, the law passed in Virginia — which became the eighth state law to require pre-abortion ultrasounds — was revised to require a noninvasive abdominal ultrasound.

Virginia's abortion-clinic regulations are the result of legislation passed in the 2011 General Assembly session and have been criticized from the start by pro-choice groups as conservative overreach designed to restrict access to abortions and close clinics that have operated safely for years without such restrictions.

The groups appeared to lodge a victory in June when the Board of Health voted to exempt existing clinics from the regulations, but the board reversed its decision in September after Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a Republican, warned members that he would refuse to certify the change and that the state would not defend them against lawsuits if they adopted the policy.

The dispute led state Health Commissioner Karen Remley to resign over the matter in October.

All 20 of Virginia's abortion clinics are licensed through April and have until mid- to late 2014 to come in line with the regulations, said Erik Bodin, director of the Virginia Department of Health's Office of Licensure and Certification.

Mr. Bodin said one of the clinics is already up to code and all 19 others have told the state they plan to stay in business and will either make renovations or relocate to better facilities.

Nonetheless, the pro-choice Virginia Coalition to Protect Women's Health released a statement Monday saying the regulations will restrict women's access to abortions and other services provided at some clinics, such as cancer screenings and annual checkups.

Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Cuccinelli "have been using elected office to play political games with the health of women," group Chairwoman Tarina Keene said in the statement. "And they may succeed in passing some of the most extreme state abortion laws in the country while ignoring the will of Virginians."

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, who opposes abortion, said the facility regulations are simply a health measure designed to satisfy modern architectural standards. He also accused abortion providers and their supporters of defying their own principles by getting in the way of proper care for women.

"These people are supposed to provide medical care," he said. "What are they doing on this side of the issue, rejecting the standards that they claim to abide by?"

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