September 6, 2011 — The Virginia Board of Health on Aug. 26 released draft regulations for abortion clinics that some abortion-rights advocates said would be the most stringent requirements in the country and could force many facilities to close, the Washington Times reports (Sherfinski, Washington Times, 8/28).
The regulations, which are based on guidelines for health care facilities published by the Facilities Guideline Institute, 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 (Kumar/Sun, Washington Post, 8/26). The regulations were issued under a Virginia a law (SB 924) that took effect on July 1 and requires the Board of Health to create new policies for all clinics that perform at least five first-trimester abortions per month (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/26).
The regulations also include numerous physical plant requirements. Elizabeth Nash, a public policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, said, "The physical plant requirements would be just about the worst in the country," adding, "They will require abortion clinics to meet the physical plant requirements of hospitals, which is completely out of scale with the safe nature of abortion."
In addition, the rules authorize the Virginia health commissioner to suspend or revoke a clinic's license, allow inspectors to make unannounced visits, require facilities to have infection prevention plans and mandate that anesthesia be administered by a physician (Washington Post, 8/26).
Opponents of the regulations have estimated that they could force up to 17 of Virginia's 21 abortion clinics to close. "We're disappointed the Virginia Department of Health apparently has ignored sound science and drafted regulations designed to limit access to safe, legal abortion services," Jessica Honke, public policy director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said. She added, "We believe they go beyond any existing regulations seen in other states."
Supporters of the regulations said they will make abortion safer for women. Del. Robert Marshall (R), a supporter of the bill, said, "If the abortion-reform people simply want to make abortion safe, they should have no opposition to these regulations. The fact that they oppose them is indicative of another motive."
The law required the regulations to be issued as "emergency regulations," which are not subject to the normal public comment and review process, according to the Times. Rather, the public will be allowed to comment at the Board of Health's Sept. 15 meeting, when the panel will vote on the regulations (Washington Times, 8/28). If approved, the regulations would take effect Dec. 31, after which Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) would review them (Washington Post, 8/26).