Virginia abortion clinic regulations approved

(AP/ABC7) - Regulations that abortion-rights supporters say would put most of Virginia's 20 clinics out of business received final approval Friday from a state board dominated by appointees of anti-abortion Gov. Bob McDonnell.

After the Virginia Board of Health's 11-2 vote, some opponents of the regulations - many of them holding up their hands, which were smeared with a red substance - shouted "blood on your hands" and "shame" as they were escorted from the packed meeting room by police and security guards.

Much of their anger was directed at Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who last year refused to certify the regulations after the board voted to exempt existing clinics from a provision that made them to meet the same strict building standards as newly constructed hospitals. The anti-abortion Republican told the board it had exceeded its authority. The board reversed its position and applied the new-hospital standards to existing clinics.

Planned Parenthood released this statement after the vote Friday:

"The sole purpose of these types of restrictions is to make abortion inaccessible to women by imposing unnecessary and sometimes impossible-to-meet restrictions on health centers."

Board members James H. Edmondson Jr. of McLean and H. Anna Jeng of Norfolk, who were appointed by Democratic former Gov. Tim Kaine, tried unsuccessfully Friday to reinstate the exemption for existing clinics. They also failed in an attempt to postpone the vote until June after arguing that the board had not met a legal requirement to explore less restrictive alternatives in adopting regulations that have a financial impact on small businesses.

Opponents of the regulations say the building standards - which cover such matters as hallway widths and closet sizes - would require expensive renovations that most clinics cannot afford. They claim the regulations are aimed at shutting down clinics and reducing access to abortions, but supporters of the new rules say they are intended to protect women's health.

"Ken Cuccinelli has blood on his hands and so do all of you!" one protester shouted after the vote as others held up cardboard masks depicting of the attorney general's face.

Cuccinelli has insisted that his refusal to certify the regulations last year was based not on ideology, but on his analysis of the law. He said at the time that the law passed by the General Assembly requiring the board to regulate abortion clinics specifically mandated the new-hospital standards. Senior Assistant Attorney General Allyson Tysinger repeated that position Friday and noted that the 2013 General Assembly rejected bills that would have exempted existing clinics from the building specifications.

Former Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley resigned over the regulations last year, saying political interference had compromised her ability to do her job. She spoke during a one-hour public hearing before Friday's vote, urging the board to reassert its authority.

The clinic regulations have been in force on an emergency basis since Jan. 1, 2012, while the lengthy regulatory process unfolds. Initial inspections of the existing clinics have turned up scores of violations. Erik Bodin, the state health department's director of licensure and certification, said inspectors who recently revisited 10 clinics found that many of the problems have not been corrected as required by plans submitted by the operators. He cited expired medications as a typical violation.

Victoria Cobb, president of the anti-abortion Family Foundation of Virginia, said the clinics' failure to correct deficiencies underscores the need for the regulations.

"This industry simply cannot be believed," she told the board during the public hearing. "It has covered up its unsatisfactory safety record long enough."

Alena Yarmosky, spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said the state's abortion clinics "have operated with exemplary safety records" for years.

"There is absolutely no evidence that these facilities are any less safe than other doctors' offices and outpatient facilities in the commonwealth, yet abortion providers are being singled out - I repeat, singled out - to comply with architectural standards not even required of existing Virginia hospitals," she said.

Candy Graham was among the critics who questioned the motives of the regulations' proponents.

"Regulations that require expensive architectural renovations have nothing to do with health and safety and everything to do with politics," said Graham, adding that she and other abortion-rights supporters will continue to fight the rules.

The only options for derailing the regulations now are persuading McDonnell or Cuccinelli to deny certification - which is unlikely - or getting a favorable court ruling. Asked after the vote about a possible lawsuit, ACLU of Virginia women's rights lawyer Katherine Greenier said that "all options are on the table."