Influx of political appointees sets stage in Virginia for abortion clinic overhaul
Friday, March 11, 2011; 10:56 PM
RICHMOND - A new law that requires Virginia's Board of Health to regulate abortion clinics will go into effect just as appointees of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell assume a majority on the panel, offering the Republican governor expansive power to shape clinic rules.
Already, McDonnell, a longtime opponent of abortion, has appointed six of the board's 14 members. In coming months, he will name the board's 15th member, filling a vacancy, and replace another member whose term ends June 30.
With those actions, McDonnell's eight appointments will outnumber board members chosen by former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D).
The shift will occur just as the board considers controversial new rules for clinics that antiabortion activists have said will make the facilities safer, but that clinic operators and abortion rights supporters fear could force many to close.
McDonnell's hand will also be strengthened by a relatively fast process for writing the rules, which gives the Board of Health just one opportunity to vote on emergency regulations that go into effect Jan. 1 and last for up to 18 months.
The quick process is necessary, Health Commissioner Karen Remley explained to the Board of Health on Friday, because a bill adopted by the General Assembly last month requires new rules to be written within 280 days.
Even after the board votes in September, McDonnell, in consultation with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), can rewrite the rules before they go into effect next year.
The emergency guidelines will be in place while the board embarks on a more deliberative two-year process for formulating permanent rules.
McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin said Friday that the governor seeks regulations that ensure "the safety and welfare of individuals who visit one of these outpatient facilities."
He said that clinic rules will be vetted similarly to other regulations that require input from the administration, but that it's "premature" to discuss whether he would make revisions to what the Board of Health adopts.
But abortion rights activists say they fear that McDonnell will seek to make abortion clinics, now treated like doctor's offices, follow rules imposed on ambulatory surgical centers. Those include guidelines about the width of hallways that they believe could force as many as 17 of Virginia's 21 clinics to close, they have said.
"The governor can have just as much power over this as he wants to," said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, one of several groups that have threatened litigation if the regulations reduce access to abortions.