RICHMOND — The Virginia Board of Health voted Monday to scrap hospital-style building codes for all abortion clinics, saying that they were unconstitutional under a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The board had signaled months ago that it would lift the requirements for 14 existing clinics but impose them on any new ones. But in an 11-to-4 vote Monday, it decided that the construction requirements should not apply to any of the state’s clinics.
The decision follows a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down abortion-clinic regulations in Texas. It also fulfills a central campaign promise of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who said during the 2013 campaign that he would be a “brick wall” against abortion restrictions.
“I want to thank the Virginia Board of Health for working to repeal onerous regulations designed solely to reduce or outright remove access to essential reproductive health services for women across the Commonwealth,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “This vote demonstrates to the rest of the United States and the world that Virginia is a community where people can live, find employment, and start a family without politicians interfering with decisions that should be made by women and their doctors.”
The General Assembly voted in 2011 to have abortion clinics operate under the same regulations as outpatient surgical centers, which would require costly renovations such as wider hallways and doorways, expanded parking and entrance awnings.
Supporters said the changes would safeguard women undergoing abortions at the clinics and ensure that emergency-medical personnel had access to patients. Abortion rights advocates called the rules medically unnecessary and a transparent attempt to force clinics out of business.
Whatever their merits, the rules have been tied up in the state’s complex regulatory process and shifting political winds.
It fell to the state’s Board of Health to implement the rules. And after a series of required public hearings, the board voted in June 2013 to grandfather existing clinics.
But the board reversed itself that September under pressure from then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R). After advising board members against grandfathering, Cuccinelli said that his office would not defend them in any litigation resulting from such a decision and that members could be personally liable for legal bills.
McAuliffe went on to beat Cuccinelli in the 2013 governor’s race, during which he hammered on the theme that Republicans were waging a “war on women.” The new governor remade the health board and directed it to review the regulations again.
Monday’s vote does not shield clinics from parts of the regulatory package passed in 2011 that require more complete record-keeping and inspections. And there are several regulatory hoops to clear before the new rules are made final. The regulations now go to the attorney general and governor for administrative review, and they will be posted online during a final public comment period. But advocates for abortion rights say substantive changes are unlikely.
“Today the women of Virginia can take a deep breath knowing that for now they will continue to have access to safe and legal abortion,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia Education Fund. “Politicians, not doctors, pushed these sham restrictions to cut off women’s ability to access comprehensive reproductive health-care services.”
But Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, hinted that the antiabortion group would challenge the decision in court.
“The actions of the Board that violate state law and the Board’s disregard for the clear intent of the General Assembly have opened Virginia to costly litigation,” she said in a written statement. “We have known from day one of this administration that abortion will be protected at all costs — including ignoring the well-being of the women who make the unfortunate decision to [enter] an abortion center in Virginia.”