Virginia abortion clinic regulations debate heats up

(Photo courtesy abbybatchelder via Flickr)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Activists on both sides of the abortion debate are rallying their troops for a Virginia Board of Health meeting next week that could determine the future of many of the state's 20 abortion clinics.

Abortion-rights advocates packed the board's meeting in June and cheered when the board stripped from the proposed regulations a hotly contested provision requiring all clinics to meet the same strict architectural standards as newly constructed hospitals.

They claimed the provision would require costly renovations that would force most clinics to close.

The following month, Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli refused to certify the regulations.

Cuccinelli, an anti-abortion Republican, said the board overstepped its authority because legislation passed by the General Assembly requiring the licensure and regulation of abortion clinics specifically mandated the strict building standards.

Now the regulations are back before the board for reconsideration Sept. 14, and abortion-rights supporters plan to once again turn out in force to urge the board to reject Cuccinelli's position and reapprove the waiver for existing clinics.

This time, the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia is also encouraging abortion opponents to make a strong showing.

"We need to mobilize hundreds of pro-life Virginians at this meeting to show the Board of Health, the media, elected officials, and the electorate that we are pro-life, we are passionate, and we are the majority," Victoria Cobb, the organization's president, said in an email to supporters.

Cobb said in a telephone interview that even though she expects the board to make its decision based on the law, not which side is most vocal, and she didn't want abortion-rights supporters to dominate the scene the way they did in June.

"We didn't really publicize that meeting, and a lot of folks wish we had," she said. Shelley Abrams, executive director of A Capital Women's Health Clinic in Richmond, said abortion-rights advocates again plan to show up early for a silent protest outside the meeting.

In June, hundreds of abortion clinic workers and other opponents of the regulations held such a demonstration.

"We're definitely hoping it's going to be much bigger this time," Abrams said. Abrams and other abortion-rights supporters also are urging a new board member, Dr. John Seeds, to recuse himself from voting on the regulations.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed Seeds, an anti-abortion obstetrician/gynecologist and senior associate dean of the VCU School of Medicine, in July.

Seeds served on a medical advisory panel that worked behind the scenes to help the Virginia Department of Health draft the regulations.

"We're not saying he's not fit to serve on the board," Abrams said. "We're saying you have to be able to make science-based and evidence-based decisions. He's already proven with his activism against abortion that this is a crusade for him."

Seeds said he has no intention of recusing himself. He said his critics are wrong. "I will base my decision on my professional background," Seeds said.

He declined to say how he would vote on the architectural provision, but added that the attorney general's advice "needs to be taken seriously." The building standards that have been the focus of the dispute deal with things like hallway widths and room sizes.

Other proposed regulations cover a range of issues, including the types of equipment a clinic must have, staffing levels and periodic inspections by state officials.

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