Va. Health Board Set To Release Draft Abortion Clinic Regulations

August 26, 2011 — As early as Friday, the Virginia Board of Health is expected to release draft emergency regulations for abortion clinics that abortion-rights advocates say could force many clinics to close, the Washington Post reports. Clinic operators have not received specific information about the regulations but have been told that the rules will be modeled on those in South Carolina, according to the Post (Sun/Kumar, Washington Post, 8/25).

In February, Virginia enacted a law (SB 924) requiring clinics that provide abortion care in the first-trimester to be regulated like hospitals instead of physician offices. The law 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. Abortion-rights advocates estimate that the new requirements would push 17 of the state's 21 clinics out of business (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/13).

The public will be allowed to comment on the draft regulations online and for one hour during a meeting scheduled for Sept. 15, when the 15-member Board of Health is expected to vote on the regulations. Gov. Robert McDonnell's (R) appointees have a majority on the board, and he will have to sign off on the rules, which would take effect Dec. 31. Health officials will then begin creating permanent rules, which could take up to two years to implement.

The rules in South Carolina, which regulators are using as a model, are considered among the strictest in the nation, according to the Post. For example, the state requires abortion clinics to have sinks with hands-free faucets and to abide by certain air flow and temperature settings.

"These really have nothing to do with patients and everything to do with making it harder to provide abortion services," said Elizabeth Nash, a public policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute (Washington Post, 8/25).

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said a coalition of abortion-rights groups "opposes the insertion of politics in this process, which can put up more barriers and put women's health at risk." The coalition hopes to collect 10,000 signatures "demanding this process be depoliticized, Keene said (O'Dell, AP/MyFoxDC, 8/25).

Joe Hilbert, director of legislative affairs for the Virginia Health Department, said, "The regulations we are finalizing address numerous health care topics, including infection prevention and quality [of care] improvements." He said state health officials tried to incorporate "the great increase in knowledge and awareness" that have occurred since South Carolina drafted its rules in 1996.

Abortion-rights opponents have long argued that regulating abortion clinics like ambulatory surgical centers would make the procedure safer. "After more than two decades of hiding behind a veil of politically motivated secrecy, abortion centers in Virginia will now face real, tangible regulations," Victoria Cobb, executive director of the conservative Family Foundation, said (Washington Post, 8/25).