NO ONE was misled three years ago when Virginia’s then-attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli II, a Republican, twisted legal logic to the breaking point by trying to shutter abortion clinics that had operated legally and safely for years. Mr. Cuccinelli, a crusading culture warrior, advanced a rationale as flawed as it was novel: He argued that a 2011 law, applying stringent hospital construction standards to small, outpatient abortion clinics, should apply not only to new structures but also to existing ones — a departure from long-standing practice for health-care facilities in Virginia.
The Democrats, who swept statewide elections in 2013, including Attorney General Mark R. Herring, campaigned on a promise to reverse Mr. Cuccinelli’s cockeyed “advice.” On Monday, Mr. Herring made good on that promise, clearing the way for new regulations.
In a watertight official opinion, Mr. Herring laid waste to Mr. Cuccinelli’s reasoning and gave the green light for state regulators to restore common-sense rule-making. Assuming the state Board of Health heeds his advice, it is now free to rewrite the regulations to lift the threat of closure from the state’s existing abortion clinics.
Even when the board was composed mainly of Republican appointees, in 2012, it initially said existing clinics were exempt from the law, which mandates corridor widths, closet sizes, parking facilities and ventilation systems intended for full-service hospitals. It was Mr. Cuccinelli’s bullying that forced the board to reverse itself a few months later.
Now Mr. Herring has struck a blow to undo the damage. He pointed out that the 2011 law used no language allowing the Board of Health to apply new building standards to existing clinics; that the board had never previously applied new standards to existing facilities; that national guidelines for health-care facilities apply explicitly to new construction; and that Virginia’s building code says the same thing, in plain English.
The transparent purpose of Mr. Cuccinelli’s intervention was to force the closure of most of the state’s abortion clinics, which could not afford retrofits to meet hospital standards. If Republicans had won the 2013 elections and his advice had stood, just five abortion clinics would likely still be in operation, instead of the current 18. None would be in Northern Virginia, meaning a woman in Fairfax or Manassas seeking an abortion would have to travel to the District, Maryland, Richmond or Charlottesville.
Advocates of the 2011 law insist its intent was to protect women’s health, yet they have offered no evidence to suggest any pattern of unsafe, unsanitary or poor treatment at the state’s clinics, where about 25,000 first-trimester abortions are performed annually.
The Virginia law and Mr. Cuccinelli’s contorted reading of it, like other such measures across the country, are nothing more than extrajudicial attempts to roll back abortion rights, conferred by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. Mr. Herring’s opinion provides a correction.