State extends clinic standards
Board of Health reverses exemption, requires existing abortion clinics follow strict building requirements
In the latest in a continuing battle over abortion care in the commonwealth of Virginia, the Virginia Board of Health Friday approved measures 13-2 requiring Virginia’s 20 existing abortion clinics to either abide by the same architectural standards as hospitals or cease providing abortions.
The board in June passed permanent regulations that closely resembled the emergency rules drafted by state officials after the General Assembly passed a bill last year tightening building standards for abortion clinics. The board at that time exempted existing abortion facilities from the building standards. Friday’s vote reversed that exemption.
Some ascribe the reversal to political pressure from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who sent a Sept. 12 memo to board members advising them against exempting existing clinics from the building standards. The memo warned that board members could be liable for legal fees if they were sued after ignoring Cuccinelli’s advice.
“The law on qualified immunity for members of state boards provides certain parameters as to when those board members are and aren’t entitled to have representation by the state,” Cuccinelli’s spokesperson Brian Gottstein said in an email. “Where the law leaves him discretion, the attorney general indicated several days ago in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch that his personal position is to provide representation.”
Dissenting board official James Edmondson said many may have voted for the measure out of fear. Potential legal fees were a serious concern for board members who would have been financially devastated by incurred costs, Edmondson said.
The attorney general and governor will likely approve the board’s regulations, which will then be open to a public comment period before the board takes a final vote next year.
Shelley Abrams, director of the Capital Women’s Health Clinic in Richmond, said the new building regulations — which include size specifications for items such as janitors’ closets, awnings over entrances and delivery driver parking spots — are “the strictest in the country and the costliest in the country.”
It could cost as much as $200,000 for her clinic to meet the tightened building standards, Abrams said. “Several friends of mine tell me in private that they are going to have to shut down,” she said. Proponents of the building standards say they are designed to protect women’s safety.
Virginia Cobb, president of the pro-life Family Foundation of Virginia, said in a statement on the organization’s website that Friday’s vote leaves Virginia women better off.
“The hysterical claims of the abortion industry that today’s vote denies access to health care are simply untrue,” Cobb said in the statement posted Friday. “Today’s decision simply requires the industry to clean up its act.”
Edmondson said closing the clinics is “not what public health is about.”
“On one hand the General Assembly tells us to regulate public health, and on the other hand they pass this law that says they should regulate abortion clinics,” Edmondson said. “We should be doing it according to professional advice.”