A politically revamped but divided state Board of Health on Thursday voted to rescind regulations requiring Virginia’s existing abortion clinics to retroactively comply with standards for new hospital construction.
Clinic advocates argued that the regulations were medically unnecessary and that abortion opponents backed them seeking to put the facilities out of business.
The vote on the 15-member board was 9-6, with the eight members of the board appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, voting in favor of amendments scaling back the construction requirements. Six members of the board appointed by former Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, voted against them.
Board Chairman Bruce Edwards, a McDonnell appointee originally appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, also voted in favor of the amendments.
The vote came more than 9½ hours into the board’s quarterly meeting in Henrico County that began amid high security and was attended by an overflow crowd of abortion rights advocates and opponents.
“Today’s vote is an enormous step forward in the fight to get extreme politics out of decisions that should be between women and their doctors,” McAuliffe said in a statement.
“When I took office, I promised to be a brick wall to protect women’s health care access and to roll back these onerous regulations that were designed explicitly to prevent Virginia women from accessing health care.”
The board received more than 14,000 public comments. Thursday’s meeting featured testimony from more than two dozen speakers — some of whom got in line just after 4 a.m. to secure a speaking slot during an hourlong comment period.
Health Department officials said the regulatory process to incorporate the amendments approved Thursday could take 18 to 24 months, similar to the time it took for the original clinic regulations enacted four years ago to become final.
The board’s vote initiates the next step in an extended, months-long regulatory process during which the amended regulations head to executive branch review by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Planning and Budget, the secretary of health and the Office of the Governor.
The review will be followed by another public comment period on the revised regulations, which would be subject to final review and vote by the Board of Health before it would be sent to the governor for approval and public posting. Until that time, the current regulations will remain in force.
Women’s health advocates who support the clinics praised the board’s vote as a victory.
“We are pleased that the Board of Health made the right decision for women’s access to care and did not extend restrictions only intended to limit access to women’s health centers,” said Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.
“These architectural restrictions have been imposed by anti-women health extremists attempting to put politics ahead of women’s health.”
Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, said in a statement: “Today was a good day for Virginia women whose reproductive rights have been attacked too often in recent years.”
Herring said the vote was consistent with his advisory opinion issued last May that determined the board did not have the authority to apply the design-and-construction section of the regulations to facilities built before the rules took effect.
Abortion opponents who supported the original regulations criticized the vote as a relaxing of safety standards.
“The outcome today is exactly what Gov. McAuliffe and the abortion industry paid for when they handed him nearly $2 million of campaign money,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, a conservative social issues organization.
“They asked the governor to water down these standards, to continue the veil of secrecy and the political cover-up that has happened for decades. And so it’s disappointing, but that’s what nearly $2 million will get you.”
Cobb said the good news from her perspective is that safety standards will continue to be in place and inspections of the facilities will continue. “They can’t undo the work and the intent of the General Assembly.”
Thursday’s meeting marked the latest front in the political war over abortion that divides Virginia and its lawmakers, primarily along party lines.
McDonnell, McAuliffe’s predecessor, opposes abortion. He signed legislation in 2011 that led to the formulation of clinic regulations that reclassified provider facilities as hospitals, separate from other medical specialties that conduct similarly invasive surgical procedures out of their offices. When the board approved the regulations, it consisted of a majority of McDonnell appointees.
Last year, McAuliffe instructed Health Commissioner Marissa Levine, whom he had appointed, to conduct a required periodic review of the regulations on an accelerated basis. Levine concluded the current regulations regarding construction needed revision, which led to VDH formulating revised rules.
The commissioner also approved waivers for 13 of the state’s 18 licensed clinics, exempting them from the obligation to comply with building regulations. The remaining clinics had already made renovations to comply with the existing regulations, which governed things like the size of parking lots, covered entryways and the width of hallways.
During public testimony, abortion rights advocates argued that the existing requirements put politics ahead of women’s health. They said medical science and evidence suggest that the clinics are safe. Virginia’s clinics are only allowed to perform first-trimester abortions. Second-trimester abortions must be performed in a hospital.
Dr. Kris Kennedy of Virginia Beach said doctors in other medical specialties “routinely perform surgical procedures in their office that are more complicated” than first-trimester abortions.
“The people who support these burdensome regulations, like the people who wrote them, want to end abortion,” said Michelle Kinsey Bruns, a Web developer from Alexandria.
“We all care about women’s health and safety, but no woman is made safer or healthier when their trusted medical provider is shut down by a political agenda,” said speaker Janet Dix.
House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, testified that the political debate “does not measure up to the gravity and seriousness of the real issue: the value and sanctity and preciousness of human life.”
Cox said the board was circumventing the “intent and will of the General Assembly” that passed the law in 2011.
He said amending the regulations would make “abortion more dangerous for whom it is absolutely necessary” and “open the door” for abortion providers in Virginia to exhibit conduct depicted in a recent series of undercover videos at Planned Parenthood clinics out of state discussing the research and handling of fetal body parts.
Cox and other Republican legislative leaders have called on McAuliffe to investigate in Virginia, where Planned Parenthood operates five clinics, but the governor said there has been no evidence or complaint of similar practices in Virginia.
That did not allay the anger of the last speaker, a fervent opponent of abortion who came to the podium with a plastic baby and proceeded to rip off its limbs.
“What kind of a heartless, sadistic, cold-blooded society have we become?” said Frances Bouton. “There’s nothing sacred about this. It’s just called murder.”
After the morning comment period, the board spent hours reviewing the proposed changes and discussing multiple amendments from board members appointed by McDonnell meant to strengthen the existing regulations and mute the impact of the changes. McAuliffe appointees, joined by Edwards, rejected the amendments.
Given the political dimension and division that the issue has brought to the board since 2011, the future course of the regulations may well depend on who wins the next election for governor in 2017.
What Levine said earlier in the day pertaining to Thursday’s revisions might well apply to the issue in general: “We are nowhere near being done with this.”