Health board approves changes to clinic regulations

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The State Board of Health voted Thursday to scale back Virginia abortion clinic regulations that critics say were driven by politics and ideology, not medical science.

The most noteworthy revision would exempt Virginia’s 17 existing clinics from strict new-hospital standards, reversing a previous decision made by the board when it was dominated by appointees of former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. The board also limited the number of new-hospital construction standards new clinics must meet.

Supporters of the tougher construction standards say they are necessary to protect women’s health, but critics contend the real goal is to put clinics out of business by requiring cost-prohibitive and medically unnecessary renovations.

Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe last year ordered the board to revisit the regulations. McAuliffe has vowed to act as a “brick wall” against abortion restrictions. His appointees now hold eight of the 15 board positions. The other seven are McDonnell holdovers.

The board’s 9-6 vote is one step in a lengthy regulatory process that must play out before the changes are final. The revisions are subject to another public comment period and review by McAuliffe and Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring before a final board vote months from now.

Herring had advised the board that it had authority to exempt existing clinics from the new-hospital construction standards. That directly contradicted the advice of his Republican predecessor, Ken Cuccinelli, who said the General Assembly clearly intended for the strict building standards to apply to all clinics. Cuccinelli threatened not to represent board members if they were sued for exempting existing facilities.

House Majority Leader Kirk Cox told the board that rolling back the regulations “would be circumventing the intent and will of the General Assembly” and would make abortions more dangerous.

Abortion-rights supporters, including many medical professionals, urged the board to approve the revisions. They argued that abortion is safe and that the strict regulations would only hurt women by reducing their access to reproductive health services.

“Decisions made by the board should be based on medical evidence, not politics, religious beliefs or ideology,” said Dr. Jessica DeMay, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist.

The packed meeting room was about divided between abortion-rights supporters and opponents, but the former dominated the hour-long public comment period by being first in line to sign up to speak.

Other than Cox, the only abortion opponent who was able to speak before time ran out was Frances Bouton.

“How can politics obscure the reality of brutal dismemberment of our youngest brothers and sisters?” Bouton asked, ripping the limbs off a small plastic doll to illustrate her point.

Two Virginia abortion clinics have closed since the regulations were approved in 2011, citing the new rules as one of the reasons. Another has announced it is closing at the end of the month because the owner is retiring, leaving 17 clinics.

The regulations address issues such as sanitation methods, drug storage and handling, and ensuring that minors obtain parental consent for an abortion. Most of the disagreement, though, has been over the new-hospital building standards that cover things like hallway widths and covered entrances.

One significant amendment approved Thursday would strike a requirement that clinics have hospital transfer agreements to handle complications. Supporters of the change said such agreements aren’t necessary because emergency rooms are legally required to treat patients.

McDonnell appointees proposed several amendments of their own to toughen the regulations, but those proposals were narrowly rejected.

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