The Virginia Board of Health eliminated the most hotly contested provision in the state's new abortion clinic regulations on Friday, prompting cheers and hugs from some opponents of proposed restrictions on abortion providers. It then voted to make the rules permanent.
The board voted 7-4 to strike a requirement that existing clinics meet the same strict building standards as new hospital construction. Only newly constructed clinics would be held to those standards.
Critics have argued the regulations could force the closure of most of the 20 clinics that have applied for a license.
The board ignored the advice of the attorney general's office, which said the 2011 law requiring the licensing and regulation of abortion clinics mandates the tougher construction standards.
After making a few other more minor revisions, the board voted 8-3 to approve the regulations.
“We're ecstatic,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, after the board scuttled the strict building requirements. “We didn't walk into this meeting today thinking we could make an amendment so sweeping.”
However, she acknowledged opponents' celebration could be short-lived. The regulations will have to undergo another review by Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, both anti-abortion Republicans, followed by a two-month public comment period and a final vote by the board.
“Hopefully, the board will stick to its guns,” Keene said.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Allyson Tysinger, who serves as counsel to the board, said she did not expect her office to certify the change.
“The board is tied by what the General Assembly has done,” Tysinger said. “To move away from that, as this amendment did, exceeds your authority.”
Hundreds of abortion clinic workers and other opponents of the regulations conducted a silent protest before the start of the meeting on the new rules, which were implemented on an emergency basis on Jan. 1
The other rules deal with types of equipment, hygiene standards, staffing and inspections by state officials.
“The only thing that has changed since then is we've had one more botched abortion and one more suspension of an abortionist's license,” Victoria Cobb, president of the anti-abortion Family Foundation of Virginia, said after the board shot down the strict building requirements.
She said she hoped the board ultimately would base its decisions on safety, not heavy lobbying by opponents of the regulations -- including many abortion providers and employees who spoke at a two-hour public hearing before the vote.
“Vocal abortion industry defenders do not represent the majority of Virginia women,” she said.
Opponents say the real aim of the regulations is to reduce access to abortions by driving up costs or putting clinics out of business.
Emily Creveling, a health educator and funding manager at Falls Church Healthcare Center, said laws targeting abortion providers will harm her clients, “women whose voices aren't heard in this debate.” In addition to abortion services, the clinics provide reproductive health care as well as a safe haven from domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Women have had abortions for thousands of years, and the law isn't going to stop it,” she said. “It'll just become unsafe.”
Protesters held signs saying “Jesus Never Shamed Women” and “Targeted Regulations (equals) Bogus Government.”
John Schuiteman, 67, of Richmond, said he opposes the regulations because he sees them as an intrusion of religion into public policy.
“The way these regulations got put through the political process was forced, and based on ideological reasons rather than a question of medical safety, and pushes against reproductive rights,” Schuiteman said. He also added that he backs the right of women to decide when to reproduce.
“Children who are wanted and loved are necessary in this world,” he said.
Mary Anne Puzh, a retired clinical psychologist, said at the public hearing that women's health would be negatively affected and that some could even die if clinics are forced to close.
“Virginia should hang its head in shame if that happens,” she said.
Dozens of other opponents spoke against the regulations, saying they were politically motivated and onerous.
A handful of regulation supporters argued, however, that requiring clinics to meet minimal standards would protect women's health.
One supporter, Julie Kiewit, said abortion is one of the least-regulated surgical procedures, and the proposed regulations are “imminently reasonable and completely constitutional.”
James H. Edmondson Jr. of McLean, the only board member to vote against the emergency regulations last year, renewed his criticism at the start of the meeting.
“The reputation of the commonwealth is being sullied in this process,” he said.
The elimination of the tough architectural standards was enough to persuade Edmondson to vote for the regulations this time.
“I hoped we changed a few minds, but I certainly didn't expect to get a majority,” he said.
But he added: “It's not close to over.”