December 5, 2014 — The Virginia Board of Health on Thursday voted 13-2 to begin a process to revise several onerous abortion clinic regulations, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.
According to the Times-Dispatch, the process is expected to take up to two years, and the current rules will remain in place in the meantime (Nolan, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/4).
Virginia's rules, passed under former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), specify various building standards -- such as exam room size, hallway width and ceiling height -- and create new requirements for inspections, recordkeeping and medical procedures. The rules were written to specifically apply to health centers that provide abortion services (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/2).
According to abortion-rights supporters, the rules have resulted in the closure of two Virginia clinics and impose unnecessary costs on abortion providers with the aim of shuttering more clinics. Of the 18 clinics remaining in the state, five completed construction to be in compliance with the regulations; 12 were granted a temporary, renewable exemption, called a variance, through April 30 by Virginia Health Commissioner Marissa Levine; and one clinic is under consideration for a variance (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/4).
In May, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) appointed five abortion-rights supporters to the state Board of Health and ordered the board to conduct a review, which began in June with a 45-day public comment period.
In October, Levine suggested that the state overhaul the regulations, noting in a letter to McAuliffe that the state received more than 14,000 comments on the rules, the majority of which called for a repeal (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/2).
Details of Review Process
According to the Times-Dispatch, the new rules at the conclusion of the modification process likely will be less restrictive than those that are currently in place (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/4).
The Virginia Board of Health will consider modifying regulations on clinics' construction and design, in addition to rules governing the storing and dispensing of drugs, parental consent for abortion procedures, medical testing, laboratory services, anesthesia use and emergency services (Portnoy, "Virginia Politics," Washington Post, 12/4).
The first step in the modification process will be a 30-day review by the executive branch. There will then be a public comment period, after which the state Board of Health will have six months to propose amendments to the existing rules (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 12/4). The board does not have the authority to repeal the rules outright (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/2).
McAuliffe, who campaigned for governor on reversing the rules, said in a statement, "These clinics provide essential preventive care and cancer screenings to many women and families and unfortunately were facing closure due to onerous regulations that were the result of politics being inserted into the regulatory process."
Meanwhile, Victoria Cobb, president of the antiabortion-rights group Family Foundation of Virginia, said that the review process does not necessarily mean the regulations will become less stringent. She said, "We don't know what will happen at the end of this process. This is simply a reopening and reviewing of the standards" ("Virginia Politics," Washington Post, 12/4).