AS A candidate last year, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) promised to do what he could to roll back absurd, baldly political rules imposed on the state’s abortion clinics with the transparent purpose of forcing many of them to close. Now Mr. McAuliffe, who took office in January, is taking a step toward fulfilling that promise. If he’s successful, he will preserve access to abortions each year for some 10,000 Virginia women — many of them minorities — who otherwise would likely be unable to find nearby clinics to perform the procedure.
During the campaign, Mr. McAuliffe suggested that he might be able to challenge the regulations by issuing an “advisory opinion” meant to sway the state Board of Health. That had a superficial appeal; after all, the board had originally agreed that existing clinics should not be affected by new rules. Opinions from a ferociously antiabortion attorney general pushed the board to change its view.
But Mr. McAuliffe’s “advisory opinion” option faded under the scrutiny of legal experts. So the governor is trying a new tack: appointing abortion rights advocates to the board in the explicit hope that they will initiate a “review” that will delay or water down the rules before they can take effect in the coming months.
The Republican speaker of the House of Delegates, William J. Howell (Stafford), reacted with predictable dyspepsia, calling Mr. McAuliffe’s approach “an overtly political move.” The unspoken irony was that no one could possibly outdo Mr. Howell and Republicans in their overtly political end-run around abortion rights that are the law of the land.
Their legislation, enacted in 2011, reclassified abortion clinics, which perform first-trimester procedures that take two or three hours, as the regulatory equivalent of full-service hospitals. As applied to existing clinics — a departure from past practice by which new codes generally applied only to new structures — the law imposed ludicrous requirements that would have no effect on the welfare of patients. Clinics would have to spend millions of dollars to widen hallways, add parking spaces, enlarge operating rooms and expand janitorial closets.
The truth is, first-trimester procedures, which account for nearly all the roughly 25,000 abortions performed annually in Virginia, are safe and relatively simple; mishaps in the state’s clinics are exceedingly rare. There is no evidence that forcing clinics to install ventilation systems up to the standards of hospital operating rooms will improve outcomes in clinics that provide abortions, which do not require incisions.
For the state’s surviving 18 abortion clinics — those that have not already closed under threat of the new rules — Mr. McAuliffe’s maneuver may mean a reprieve for as many as half. Those clinics are the only convenient option for thousands of women who seek abortions each year. If the governor can preserve that option for those women, he will have served the cause of rights conferred by the Supreme Court.