HENRICO, Va. — Pro-choice advocates still face a number of hurdles after the Virginia Board of Health’s sudden decision to exempt existing abortion clinics from having to comply with hospitallike construction requirements on items such as hallway width and room sizes.
The permanent regulations, which the board approved 8-3 on Friday, still face review from the executive branch, including the offices of Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Allyson Tysinger had advised the board that providing such an exemption would violate state law and that doing so exceeded the board’s authority, but members ignored her advice. Before an unsuccessful attempt to reconsider the vote, she also suggested the attorney general’s office might not certify the amendment to the regulations that had been proposed and could send them back to the board.
Advocates say the new construction requirements could have forced many clinics that perform five or more first-trimester abortions per month to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations in order to stay in operation.
But advocates did not get everything they wanted. The board did not change other measures they thought were unnecessary.
For example, health inspectors can remove patient records from abortion clinics and request a list of current patients and all patients from the past year under the regulations that passed.
“Allowing government bureaucrats to compile lists of women seeking an abortion and access to their medical records is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to shame and intimidate women out of seeking safe and legal medical care,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of the progressive advocacy group ProgressVA.
Nevertheless, Chairman Bruce Edwards applauded the board after the daylong meeting Friday, given the emotional nature of the topic.
“We appreciate the passion that people have,” he said. “I know that we can agree to disagree and just move on.”
The General Assembly passed a law in 2011 directing the Board of Health to draft emergency regulations for abortion clinics - akin to what the board approved last week - which have been in effect since late December. The temporary regulations, however, can only remain in effect for a year, though Mr. McDonnell has the authority to extend them for up to six more months.
More than 50 people testified before the board Friday - the overwhelming majority of whom complained that the new regulations were unnecessarily burdensome, or urged members to amend them to make them less onerous.
At the behest of consumer representative James H. Edmonson Jr., the board voted 7-4 to adopt the amendment exempting the current facilities from new construction standards and ignore Ms. Tysinger’s advice. A motion to reconsider the vote later in the meeting failed, with five members voting in favor of reconsideration and six members voting against it.
“We do not need to add regulations that are going to make it more difficult for everybody else that does a good job,” said Paul Clements, who represents the nursing home industry on the board.
Some onlookers stood up and cheered after the vote was tallied, drawing a sharp rebuke from Mr. Edwards. Throughout the public comment portion of the meeting, he repeatedly gaveled down the crowd as they cheered on the parade of speakers testifying against the regulations.
Stephanie Saavedra, whose mother works for the state health department, choked up when she told her story of having an abortion at a Planned Parenthood facility in 2007 - noting that the facility was conveniently located close to her home, and the staff was exceptional.
“I was relieved and I was just filled with gratitude to these people who provided this to me,” she said, her voice shaking.
Evangeline Jones with Americans United for Life, meanwhile, argued that the facilities cannot provide an adequate, safe doctor-patient relationship, because most women who seek abortions at such clinics do not have a relationship with the staff before or after the procedure.
“Abortion is an invasive surgical procedure that can lead to many serious medical complications,” she said.
At least 200 protesters gathered before the meeting to rally against the regulations.