- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2011

RICHMOND — Virginia should model its abortion clinic regulations after stiff rules in South Carolina that already have withstood judicial scrutiny, anti-abortion advocates told the State Board of Health Thursday.

Legislators passed a law this winter directing the board to approve regulations for abortion clinics that will be similar to those that govern hospitals. The Virginia Department of Health will present its proposed regulations to the board in September, and they are expected to take effect by Jan. 1.

“As taxpayers, we are holding you accountable for any lack of due diligence for failure to utilize the best of what is already out there, which in my opinion is the South Carolina regulations,” said Diana Deboe with the Virginia Coalition of Life. “Women of Virginia are worth your combined dedication to this task of protecting life.”

Two abortion clinics and an abortion provider sued South Carolina after its regulations went into effect in 1996, claiming they placed an undue burden on women’s decisions to seek abortions and were unfair because they singled out abortion providers over other medical professionals.

The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which also has jurisdiction over Virginia matters, upheld the constitutionality of the South Carolina regulations. The court said they serve a valid state interest, do not strike at the abortion right itself and required only modest increases in the cost of abortions.

The regulations call for South Carolina abortion providers to be subject to periodic inspections and to maintain administrative documents, licensing and equipment. But they also regulate the laundering of linens and the outside appearance, including cutting of the grass.

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said only three of South Carolina’s 14 abortion clinics stayed open after the regulations took effect. She said structural requirements, such as dictating the size of operation rooms, were at the center of many closures. Many abortion clinics are designed similar to dentists’ offices.

“It wasn’t that the services that they offered were lacking in any way,” she said. “It was because they could not afford to retrofit their doctors’ offices to meet those extremely high, extremely expensive structural requirements.”

Virginia only allows first-trimester abortions to be performed in clinics. Later abortions must be done in hospitals. In South Carolina, second-trimester abortions can be done in clinics, Ms. Keene said.
Virginia providers perform about 26,000 abortions each year.

Ms. Keene estimates that about 17 of Virginia’s 21 abortion clinics would close if similar regulations were adopted in the commonwealth.

“They’re basically trying to overturn Roe by regulating it out of existence,” she said, referring to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision affirming abortion rights.

Joseph Hilbert, director of governmental and regulatory affairs for the state Health Department, said the agency was examining 22 other states that regulate abortion clinics while developing Virginia’s proposed regulations.

“We’re taking a very careful look at those to see what we can learn from them,” he said.

The department will present its proposed rules to the board Sept. 1; the board will vote on them two weeks later. Before the regulations can take effect, they must be approved by the attorney general, budget officials and finally Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and his administration.

Leigh Gorski of Hampton Roads for Life said Virginia needed to regulate abortion clinics for the safety of women. She likened unregulated clinics to “legalized back-alley providers who pose a significant danger to the women they serve.”

“Roe v. Wade did not mandate that abortions be cheap and easy, but rather that it be available without undue burden,” she said. “We must not be so fearful of the burden of availability that we fail to burden abortion providers with regulations that protect the health of women.”

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