The Virginia State Board of Health voted last Friday to adopt regulations requiring existing clinics that provide abortions to follow the same building regulations as hospitals.
Abortion rights supporters have described the regulations as unnecessary and cumbersome, and a political tactic for minimizing access to abortion clinics.
In a 13-2 vote, members of the board reversed an earlier decision, which would have exempted existing buildings from the regulations previously applied only to new construction.
Anti-abortion defendants have applauded the board's decision, although some board members deny the rules have any political agenda, instead saying regulations are only for ensuring health and safety.
“The primary purpose of the regulations is to ensure there is a safe, clean, healthy environment in which these procedures are performed for these women.” said Bruce Edwards, Chair of the Virginia State Board of Health.
The regulations require Virginia clinics that provide five or more abortions a month upgrade their facilities to meet hospital standards. These upgrades would include wider hallways and larger operating rooms, now the norm for new construction. Additionally, it affects the number of parking spaces available.
Olivia Babis, the southwest Virginia field coordinator for Planned Parenthood, said while Planned Parenthood is by no means anti-regulation, these particular rules are purposefully onerous, having “absolutely nothing to do with patient safety.”
“It is designed to shut down facilities performing abortions, there are no other purposes to it,” Babis said.
Edwards, who is also the representative on the Board for Emergency Medical Services, disagrees.
“It is aimed at ensuring that things are sized properly so that good care can be provided to these patients,” Edwards said. “It's important for me to be able to get all the way around the patient.
"I've been in small examining rooms... it's often times difficult to get in there, particularly if the patient is not doing well.”
Blacksburg's Planned Parenthood provides medical abortions during the first trimester, meaning it prescribes an oral medication inducing a miscarriage. Despite not performing any surgical procedures, the facility will be subject to these new regulations.
Planned Parenthood in Blacksburg provided 160 medical abortions in 2011. Planned Parenthood in Roanoke, which provides surgical abortions as well as medical, provided 846 abortions in 2011.
According to Babis, it is possible the building in Blacksburg will have to change locations to meet the requirements, or otherwise undergo costly renovations.
“We're going to do everything in our power to not affect cost,” Babis said. “I can't say that (raising costs) is not a possibility.”
The recent change in the board’s position is largely attributed to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's office.
The attorney general's office sent a memo to the board, stating it had exceeded its authority in exempting certain facilities and was not properly following the directive set to it by the General Assembly's law passed in 2011.
The 2011 law dictated abortion clinics should be regulated as hospitals, as opposed to physician's offices. Health centers under the jurisdiction of those regulations were required to submit a plan to meet new requirements within two years. Existing facilities will now be required to do the same.
A statement released by NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia said “Attorney General Cuccinelli had exceeded his authority and undermined the board’s decision-making power.”
The statement added the board reversed its earlier decision only after months of pressure tactics by Cuccinelli — a claim Edwards denied.
Regulatory boards in Virginia must consult the office of the attorney general for legal advice when necessary. Regardless, the regulations have to be certified by Cuccinelli's office.
“When the city attorney tells me that the best decision is going to be X, then I air on that side and that is the advice that I take,” Edwards said.
According to Brian Gottstein, director of communication for the Attorney General's Office, it is the duty of the office to provide the Board of Health with advice that will ensure that regulations the board creates are in compliance with the law, and will determine whether to certify them based solely on a legal basis.
Members of the State Board of Health are appointed by Virginia's governor. Cuccinelli is currently a leading candidate for the Republican ticket for the gubernatorial election, taking place next fall.