Va. Health Board meeting on abortion-clinic rules draws strong opinions from public

Weeks after Gov. Terry McAuliffe urged Virginia’s Board of Health to reconsider strict rules imposed upon the state’s abortion clinics, the panel offered a public update Thursday on a lengthy review process that could result in repealing or rewriting the regulations — but could take years to complete.

In the review’s first phase, the Health Department has until Oct. 1 to write a report based on public feedback. Using the report to inform her decision, Marissa Levine, the state’s interim health commissioner, will decide whether the rules should be retained, amended or repealed. She will report her decision to the board in December, and board members won’t take action until next year. By then, McAuliffe (D) is expected to appoint more members who side with him on access to abortion.

McAuliffe appointed Levine to the post in February. If she decides that the rules should be amended, the governor and the board will have the chance to weigh in before the agency begins to develop new proposed regulations.

McAuliffe’s call for a review made good on his campaign promise to undo clinic regulations imposed under his predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell, with the support of former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II, both Republicans.

The regulations — strict, hospital-style building rules — require the state’s 18 abortion clinics to widen hallways, add parking spaces and make other costly building renovations that abortion rights advocates say block access for women seeking care. Approved by the General Assembly in 2011, the rules are set to go into effect in some clinics this month.

Those opposed to abortion say the laws are needed to police the clinics, citing cases in which women have faced medical complications after the procedure.

Abortion rights advocates and opponents attended Thursday’s board meeting to reinforce their positions on the issue.

Shelly Abrams, who works at a Richmond-area abortion clinic, urged the state to overhaul the regulations, which she said “don’t do a thing but create paperwork nightmares for small, safe local business.”

“Let’s take out the architectural [rules] we now know would not have helped with a single citation. Let’s get it right this time,” she said.

Anna Scholl, executive director of ProgressVA, a progressive advocacy group, called on the state to rewrite the regulations.

“The original regulatory process was hijacked by political ideologues who were intent on using these regulations to shut down women’s access to comprehensive reproductive care,” she said.

Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, praised the current rules and singled out a Virginia Beach clinic for a high complication rate that was revealed through regular inspection.

“These are great regulations,” she said after the meeting. “They’re doing what they’re supposed to do when there are deficiencies.”

Leslie Blackwell, regional coordinator of the antiabortion group Silent No More, said the rules are good for women who might not be considering safety standards when they seek out a clinic.

“The last thing you’re thinking about are sterile environments. Are these doctors, are these nurses, are they going to take care of me?” she said.

In the first executive directive of his term, McAuliffe in May called for expediting the usual review process, which wouldn’t have begun until as late as 2017. The governor also replaced five of the board’s 15 members in the hope of exerting his influence over the process.

The issue has a contentious history in Virginia. After legislators voted three years ago to regulate abortion clinics, the Board of Health, which was responsible for implementing the changes, voted to exempt existing clinics. But the board quickly reversed itself after Cuccinelli said his office would not defend board members if they were sued over a botched procedure. McDonnell certified the regulations in late 2012.

The board did not address McAuliffe’s indication last month that he hoped to find a way to soften the regulations to keep existing clinics open while the board completes its review.

Abortion rights activists have said that state health officials have the power to issue one-year variances to clinics that demonstrate they are trying to comply with the rules but cannot do so by deadline.

There is nothing in the regulations that would prohibit officials from granting a succession of one-year variances, the activists said.

Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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