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Va. Board of Health approves stricter rules for abortion clinics

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RICHMOND — After hours of emotional debate, the Virginia Board of Health overwhelmingly approved far-reaching regulations for abortion clinics Thursday that some operators say could shut down many of the state’s 22 facilities.

The regulations, some of the toughest in the nation, include mandates on the size of exam rooms, the width of hallways and the number of parking spaces, as well as requirements for inspections, medical procedures and record-keeping.

“We are here today not because of a concern over women’s health,’’ said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, who teared up after the vote. “We are here today because of a political battle that has raged in this state for decades.”

For years, antiabortion activists have been pushing for regulations that would treat abortion clinics as ambulatory surgery centers and require that they meet hospital-type regulations.

“Without adequate regulations, there is simply no way for anyone to know what’s happening inside these clinics,’’ said Chris Freund, vice president of the conservative Family Foundation, which is in favor of the new rules.

The 12 to 1 vote came after 4 1/2 hours of sometimes testy debate among board members and passionate public testimony from residents split over the regulations. Chairman Bruce Edwards repeatedly warned the audience that police officers in the room and hall would remove anyone who interfered with the meeting.

“You government dogs!” a man yelled after the vote. “You should know better.”

The regulations will go into effect Dec. 31 if approved by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who opposed abortion rights when he served in the General Assembly. The rules are considered emergency regulations that could be in effect for as long as 18 months before the board approves permanent rules.

The board’s decision came a day after the release of poll results showing that 55 percent of Virginia’s registered voters approve of requiring clinics to meet hospital-type regulations, compared with 22 percent who disapprove.

Abortion rights organizations spent weeks signing petitions, writing letters and holding rallies to try to convince the board that the regulations would require cost-prohibitive renovations that have nothing to do with women’s health.

On Thursday, the board heard the testimony of residents from across the state, many of whom turned the discussion into a referendum on whether abortion should be legal.

“Just because something is legal, that does not make it morally right,’’ said Frances Bouton, a Suffolk resident who equated abortion to slavery. “No person has the right to kill another, especially a mother killing her child.”

Corrina Beall, a recent college graduate who recently moved to Fairfax City, said young women need the health care provided at women’s centers. “The young women rely on these services,’’ she said. “I rely on these services. The families of Virginia rely on these services, and my generation relies on these services. Do not take them away.”

The 26 pages of regulations include physical requirements for clinics, allow inspectors to make unannounced visits and require that clinics work with hospitals to provide emergency care. The rules also allow the state’s health commissioner to suspend or revoke a clinic’s license, and they require that clinics have infection-prevention plans and that anesthesia be administered by a doctor.

The rules would apply to any Virginia clinic that provides five or more first-trimester abortions a month. About 25,000 abortions were performed in Virginia last year, including those at hospitals and doctor’s offices, according to the state Health Department. Virginia law requires that second-trimester abortions be performed at hospitals.

The Board of Health has nine members appointed by McDonnell and six appointed by McDonnell’s predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine (D). Two Kaine appointees were absent from the meeting.

Fourteen amendments, many offered by Kaine appointee James H. Edmondson Jr. to ease the regulations, were defeated, many after Assistant Attorney General Allyson Tysinger told members that they were outside the board’s jurisdiction.

“I’m just offended by that advice,’’ Edmondson said at one point before voting against the regulations.

Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), a lawyer who spoke against the regulations, accused Tysinger of acting at the behest of her boss, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), who opposes abortion rights and issued an opinion that the state could issue regulations.

“The heavy hand of government was at work today as the attorney general’s office advised the Virginia Board of Health members that accepting some of the most reasonable amendments to the draft regulations was beyond their authority,’’ she said.

Four amendments were adopted to protect health records, decrease the number of inspections, ease the fee for clinics the first year and mandate that inspectors identify themselves.

The regulations will go to Cuccinelli and McDonnell for review. “We will review the regulations as approved by the board in the weeks ahead,’’ McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell said Thursday.

Regulatory changes by the Board of Health typically take as long as two years to implement. But state officials have been rushing to adopt new rules after the General Assembly voted this spring to mandate that they be written no more than 280 days after a bill was signed into law.

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