Some Experts Who Advised Va. on Abortion Clinic Rules Object To Results

December 5, 2011 — Some medical experts who advised Virginia health officials on new requirements for abortion clinics said some of their key recommendations were discarded and that drafters of the regulations considered politics rather than safety, the AP/Columbus Republic reports (O'Dell, AP/Columbus Republic, 12/3).

The regulations require abortion facilities to meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers. They specify the size of exam rooms, require public corridors to have a minimum width of five feet and stipulate minimum ceiling heights of seven feet 10 inches, among other specifications (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/21).

The state Board of Health approved the emergency regulations on Sept. 15, and they will take effect by Dec. 31 if signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). The regulations would remain in place for one year while permanent standards are written (AP/NBC 12, 12/1).

Supporters of the regulations maintain the goal is to protect women's health, while opponents say they are meant to reduce access to abortion and will cause most of Virginia's clinics to close (AP/Columbus Republic, 12/3). Last week, the Virginia coalition to Protect Women's Health presented McDonnell with 40,000 signatures of people who oppose the regulations (AP/NBC 12, 12/1).

Experts' Objections

James Ferguson -- chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia -- was one of several experts chosen by Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley to provide guidance on drafting the new regulations. He said the regulations approved by the board went further than what the panel recommended and has asked that his name not be associated with them. "I don't know where they got changed, but ultimately they were different, more stringent and more restrictive -- and several of them, at least, unnecessary," he said.

Ferguson added that the health department tried too hard to mirror South Carolina's abortion clinic regulations, rather than considering what would be applicable in Virginia. "There were more than a few things I felt were unnecessary that were just stuck in there because South Carolina had it in there," he said. He also questioned the severity of the regulations. "I asked, 'Do we have evidence there are problems in this area? Are women getting sick and are women dying?' And the answer was no."

Jerome Strauss, dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine, said the panel initially was told that the regulations would not apply to existing clinics, which he later found out is not the case. The panel also wanted the regulations to apply only to clinics that offer surgical abortion services, but the attorney general's office advised that the state makes no distinction between medication and surgical abortion.

Caroline Gibson, a spokesperson for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), said the attorney general's office advised the panel that the building standards are mandated by state law (AP/Columbus Republic, 12/3).