RICHMOND — The Virginia Board of Health voted Thursday evening to reverse hospital-style rules and building codes for abortion clinics, fulfilling a campaign promise of Gov. Terry McAuliffe and delivering a setback to abortion foes.
The amended regulations — if finalized — will no longer require the state’s existing abortion clinics to comply with the inpatient hospital code. Nor would the regulations mandate that the clinics have transfer agreements with hospitals or impose strict construction and design standards. However, future clinics will have to follow parts of the construction code.
“Today’s vote is an enormous step forward in the fight to get extreme politics out of decisions that should be between women and their doctors,” McAuliffe (D) said in a statement. “I applaud the Board of Health for ending this disturbing chapter in our history and for heeding the advice of experts, medical professionals and Virginia women about the best way to provide safe access to health care.”
The move also drew praise from the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and ProgressVA.
But Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said the Board of Health ignored clinic inspection reports that she said show violations of state and federal law.
“Today, the abortion industry got exactly what it paid for when it gave Terry McAuliffe nearly $2 million in campaign money,” she said in a statement. “Sadly, some members of the Board, led by Governor McAuliffe’s hand-picked political appointees, chose to ignore years of inspection reports. . . . Safety didn’t win today, politics did.”
The changes undo rules ushered in four years ago under then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, both Republicans.
At the time, the fiery rhetoric and political gamesmanship on each side put Virginia on the front lines of a national debate over abortion access and women’s safety that has spread to Texas and more than a dozen other states. The recent rollout of secret video footage of Planned Parenthood officials discussing in graphic detail the process of aborting a fetus to preserve organs for use by medical researchers has only intensified the enmity.
Abortion opponents say the clinic rules are needed to ensure women’s safety and access for emergency personnel. Abortion rights advocates call the rules medically unnecessary and a politically motivated attempt to block women’s access to legal abortion.
During the 2013 governor’s race, McAuliffe promised to be a “brick wall” against limits on the procedure, and last spring he urged the state Health Department to rethink the rules, which required clinics to widen hallways, add parking and make other costly modifications.
Ten hours into the meeting Thursday, the Health Board — which is dominated by McAuliffe appointees — approved the changes, 9 to 6. Members had spent hours poring over amendments intended to keep in place McDonnell-era rules. Most of the amendments failed.
The changes do not take effect immediately. The vote triggered a review by McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), as well as a 60-day public comment period ending with a final vote in a few months.
Passionate activists descended on the Health Department offices in suburban Richmond early Thursday morning, having become accustomed to the strict security procedures instituted every time the incendiary issue is on the agenda. About 200 people filled meeting and overflow rooms and held signs with slogans such as “Trust Doctors” and “Thou shall not kill.” By the end, only a few dozen stalwarts remained.
During the one hour of public comment, Frances Bouton of Suffolk, Va., pulled the limbs off a pink plastic baby, saying, “Rip. Rip. Rip.”
“How did abortion become such an untouchable, sacred cow in Virginia?” she said, adding: “There’s absolutely nothing sacred about this. It’s just called murder.”
House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said hundreds of thousands of abortions have been performed since Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationally.
“It devastates me,” he said. “It keeps me awake at night.”
He also criticized McAuliffe for saying an investigation into Planned Parenthood after the video scandal was unnecessary because Virginia has strong regulations governing abortion providers — the same regulations that were softened Thursday.
Next, the board heard stories from women who’d had abortions and pleaded with board members to roll back the regulations. Doctors and activists also weighed in.
Four years ago, Virginia had 21 abortion clinics; today there are 18, and soon the number will be 17. The initial restrictions contributed to the closure of clinics in Fairfax and Norfolk and led a clinic in Hampton Roads to stop offering abortions. This week, a clinic in Manassas announced that it will close because of the owner’s retirement.
Abortion rights advocates say the cities of Manassas and Fairfax adopted building rules mimicking the initial statewide regulations, making it difficult for new clinics to take the place of those that closed or will close.
Most of the clinics that remained open sought and were issued variances by the Health Department, temporarily insulating them from the strict rules.