RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Abortion rights advocates, clinic workers and students who oppose tightening restrictions on abortion clinics urged the Virginia Board of Health Friday to resist rubber-stamping interim measures now in place as the board begins developing permanent state regulations governing the facilities.
The board last fall approved the "emergency" regulations after the General Assembly passed legislation requiring that all clinics performing five or more first-trimester abortions per month meet the same building standards as new hospitals.
The law called for the interim regulations to take effect by Dec. 31, 2011, and remain in place for a year while permanent regulations are developed.
Opponents of the more-restrictive measures far outnumbered the two speakers who supported the interim measures, which impose architectural and other building-code restrictions on clinics that would force clinic operators to retrofit their facilities to comply with state law.
The regulations also subject the clinics to onsite inspections during which they would have to turn over a list of current patients, which opponents say raises privacy and confidentiality concerns.
They said the regulations are unnecessarily burdensome, unfairly single out one type of medical practice and are politically motivated.
They claim they would put many Virginia clinics out of business and deprive many women of services including preventive health care, cancer screenings and sexually-transmitted infection testing and treatment.
"Virginia women need more access to high-quality health care, not less," said Courtney Jones, who spoke on behalf of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. "The regulations will increase the financial burden on patients and decrease patients' health care options, thereby marginalizing young, low-income and uninsured women."
The regulations' supporters argued that the goal is to protect women's health.
Mark Earley with the anti-abortion Family Foundation and Americans United for Life, raised concerns about women who have used abortion provider Steven Brigham who, authorities said, suffered serious complications from their procedures.
He said Brigham, who faces suspension and revocation of his license in several states, owns and operates two clinics that perform abortions in Virginia, and "without adequate regulation, there is simply no way for you or anyone else to know, except the women who have suffered at his hands."
Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb argued the content of the interim regulations should stand to ensure that women have safe and appropriate care in Virginia abortion facilities.
"All along we have looked at this to be a new day in the health care of women," Cobb said in a telephone interview.
But most of the speakers questioned the necessity and motives behind the restrictions on clinics, including imposing construction and design requirements that don't apply to comparable medical facilities, including those that provide colonoscopies or dental surgery.
They also said the interim regulations were politically motivated and would harm women who depend on the clinics' services.
Katherine A. Greenier, director of the Virginia ACLU's women's rights project, said that the regulations don't allow for "grandfathering" existing clinics, meaning that all clinics will have to comply with tougher building regulations aimed at new construction.
The requirement to meet the architectural burdens improperly singles out facilities that provide abortion services, and could force clinics to shut down, Greenier and others said.
"We existed so long without these rules and suddenly we need to be protected?" said Diana Egozcue, president of Virginia NOW. "It's not the government's job to come between me and my doctor."
Affluent women would be able to seek abortion services elsewhere, Egozcue said, but the regulations would harm lower-income Virginians who depend on the clinics.
Law student Amy Weiss said that she currently is one of those low-income women, and said Planned Parenthood clinics also provide necessary education, preventative care and other services on a sliding fee scale, she said.
"Everybody in this room knows the regulations aren't about women and protecting their health," she said. A second public hearing will be held Feb. 3 in Alexandria.
The public also can weigh in on the state regulatory website before the initial public comment period ends Feb. 15 prior to the board's issuing its initial proposed regulations.
The public will continue to have opportunities to submit comments as the process continues.