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Protecting vulnerable women

Board of Health approves stricter regulation of abortion clinics by a 12-1 vote

Protecting vulnerable women

The Virginia Board of Health voted 12-1 Thursday to approve strict abortion clinic regulations that supporters say will protect women's health and opponents, including the dissenting board member, say are aimed at putting most of the state's clinics out of business.

The vote came after an emotionally charged 90-minute public comment period and a three-hour review by the board, which made only minor changes to the regulations as drafted by Department of Health personnel. James Edmondson Jr. cast the only negative vote after his fellow board members rejected several amendments he proposed to relax the regulations, including one that would have exempted clinics performing only pharmaceutical abortions and others aimed at protecting patients' privacy.

"I think access will wind up being at risk in many parts of the state because of this, and that's too bad," Edmondson, one of six Democratic appointees on the 15-member board, told reporters after the vote.

The Board, however, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the regulations. Lawmakers passed legislation last winter requiring licensure and extensive regulation of abortion clinics. The attorney general's office and McDonnell must sign off on the temporary regulations, which will remain in effect while permanent ones are developed.

At one point board chairman Bruce Edwards chastised a regulations opponent who stood and angrily denounced remarks made by a regulations proponent during the public comment period. Edwards also had to repeatedly gavel speakers to silence (most who opposed the rules) as they tried to exceed their two-minute limit.

"It's appalling that the Board of Health has rubber-stamped these regulations," pro-abortion speaker Dr. Wendy Klein said. "I think there is a political agenda here that has been highly effective in getting the public to believe there is a health issue where there is none. These regulations are designed to shut clinics down."

"This argument would never even be attempted for medical facilities that are less politically sensitive than abortion clinics," said Rita Dunaway, an attorney for the Rutherford Institute.

Chris Freund, vice president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said "the abortion industry" can well afford to make whatever changes are necessary to comply with the regulations. "At least if a woman in Virginia makes the unfortunate choice to have an abortion, when she walks in she will be protected by minimal safety standards," Freund said.

"I don't think opponents [of the regulations] did themselves any favors by questioning the motives and the process," Freund told World Virginia, noting that pro-abortion speakers even "questioned the integrity of the Board itself. [The Board members] are apolitical medical people, and they made their decision based on what they saw as necessary medical standards."

The regulations apply to clinics performing at least five first-trimester abortions per month. They specify staffing levels, the types of equipment and supplies that must be maintained and other operational details. One of the few amendments Edmondson was able to get approved would require inspections at least every other year rather than annually, as department staff had proposed.

The regulations also would require facilities to comply with architectural standards on matters such as door widths and treatment room sizes. Many of Edmondson's failed amendments were intended to ease those requirements, which opponents argue are part of guidelines intended for new construction, not existing facilities.

"These are architectural standards they are not about safety," said Dr. William Nelson, a former state Health Department official.

Louantha Kerr, however, held up enlarged photos of the exterior of a Newport News abortion clinic with boarded-up windows and narrow back doors that she suggested would be inadequate in an emergency.

"There were 733 abortions performed in this facility last year," she said. "I don't know about you, but I wouldn't take my pet to a facility like this."

Several opponents of the regulations pointed out that the women's health centers do more than provide abortions. They also provide low-cost breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings, contraceptives, prenatal care and other services.

Tasha Yingling said the closure of such facilities "will place thousands of women who don't have health insurance at risk." But Freund said that clinics can still provide general health services, "they just have to decide whether or not they will spend their profits on the health and safety standard now required to also do abortions." He suspects that the clinics are more concerned about the surprise inspections and required record-keeping than about the building requirements.

The regulations will go into effect Jan. 1 (clinics will have two years to comply) and remain in effect for 12 months while final rules go through the usual rule-making process. Because they were passed using the "emergency" process, "we'll redo all this next year, it'll just in the normal process," said Freund. The final regulations are likely to be very similar, however, and the law requiring abortion clinics to be regulated as outpatient hospitals is unlikely to be overturned. Gov. McDonnell and the GOP-controlled House, which is unlikely to go Democrat in this November's state elections, firmly support the law.

Abortion proponents or clinics could sue in an attempt to have the regulations overturned, but Freund said that similar regulations have withstood constitutional challenges elsewhere in the country. As for the recent Quinnipiac University poll that found Virginians support the new rules by a 55-22 percent margin influenced the Board, "I don't think it hurt," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Les Sillars

Les is a WORLD Radio correspondent and commentator. He previously spent two decades as WORLD Magazine’s Mailbag editor. Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.

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