Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has approved health regulations that impose strict, hospital-style building codes on Virginia abortion clinics.

McDonnell’s decision to certify the regulations, made without public announcement Friday, was publicized by an abortion-rights group Monday. His approval was expected and is not the final word on the matter, but it triggers the next step in a review process expected to conclude in March with a final vote by the Virginia Board of Health.

After one the most contentious debates of the 2011 General Assembly session, legislators voted to regulate abortion clinics like outpatient surgical centers. It fell to the health board to implement the new rules, which call for costly physical renovations, such as widening hallways and doorways, that some clinic officials say could put them out of business.

In a surprise move in June, the health board voted to grandfather existing clinics from the building codes. But the board reversed itself in September, voting to adopt the regulations without grandfathering clinics. The reversal came after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) wrote to board members suggesting that if they did not heed his advice against grandfathering, his office would not defend them in any resulting litigation, and that they could be personally on the hook for legal bills.

Now that McDonnell has signed off on the regulations, the state will solicit public comment for a 60-day period. After that, the board is likely to take the matter up for a final vote in March.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia announced via e-mail that McDonnell had certified the regulations “on a holiday Friday.”

“After two years of shocking backroom deals and bullying public health servants, Governor Bob McDonnell is clearly proving his disregard of Virginians’ opinions about women’s health care,” Tarina Keene, executive director of the group, said in the e-mail.

McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the regulations had bipartisan support.

“These regulations are a product of legislation that passed both the House and Senate with support from members of both parties,” he said via e-mail. “The Governor believes these common-sense regulations will help ensure that this medical procedure takes place in facilities that are modern, safe and well-regulated, in order to help ensure the safety and well-being of all patients.”