Under mounting pressure from Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Virginia Board of Health on Friday must consider for a second time a set of regulations that could shut down most abortion clinics in the state.
The Board of Health voted in June on a set of new clinic regulations that would require existing abortion clinics that provide first-trimester abortion to adhere to a detailed set of building standards meant for new hospital construction. Currently, none of the 20 health centers applying for a new license currently meet the proposed requirements, which include minimum 5-foot-wide hallways, covered front entrances, specific ventilation systems and drinking fountains in waiting rooms.
The Board passed the regulations but adopted a provision that exempted existing abortion clinics from the requirements, sparing them from costly renovations that would necessary to bring them into compliance. Only new clinics, the Board agreed, would have to meet the new building standards.
Cuccinelli, an outspoken opponent of abortion rights, refused to certify the rules passed by the board, arguing that it had exceeded its authority in its decision to grandfather in existing clinics. The board now will have to take a second vote on the original regulations this Friday.
In the meantime, McDonnell appointed a new member to the Board of Health, Dr. John W. Seeds, vice chairman of the anti-abortion group OBGYNS for Life.
The American Civil Liberties Union and several women's health advocacy groups charge that McDonnell and Cuccinelli have misused their power in order to strong-arm the Board of Health into passing medically unnecessary regulations that restrict Virginia women's access to a legal abortion procedure. McDonnell and Cuccinelli maintain that they have acted within the scope of their responsibilities.
"Governor McDonnell is not personally involved in the day-to-day discussions of the Board of Health or its members on this or any issue within the board's purview," said Jeff Caldwell, a spokesperson for McDonnell. "However, he has appointed members to the board who can explore the necessary legal, ethical, medical and social issues that surround decisions within its authority. He appointed Dr. Seeds to the Board of Health earlier this year to provide the insight and expertise of a trained and highly regarded medical professional to this board's discussions."
Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said the attorney general's job is to make sure the regulations reflect the law that the General Assembly passed in 2011 that directs the Board of Health to regulate abortion clinics as if they were hospitals. He denied that Cuccinelli's own views on abortion have influenced his decision.
"Our office merely reviews the regulations and certifies whether they are compliant with the law or not," he said. "We make that determination solely on a legal basis, not on the basis of whether we agree with the policy or not."
The Center for Reproductive Rights will testify before the Board of Health on Friday in opposition to the proposed regulations.
"Absent the Board’s grandfather amendment, Section 370 will impose burdens so heavy that they will unquestionably force some of the Commonwealth's longstanding reproductive health care facilities to close their doors," the group's planned testimony argues. "The diminishment of access to abortion care will disproportionately harm women in groups that already face significant barriers in accessing health care, such as young women, women without adequate health insurance, rural women, and those who have experienced sexual assault and/or intimate partner violence."