RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - In a reversal, the Virginia Board of Health on Friday approved abortion clinic regulations that include strict building standards that abortion-rights supporters say are aimed at closing down the centers.
Three months after the board backed clinic rules that exempted existing facilities from such strict standards, the board reinstated the provision imposing the new-hospital construction specifications.
Abortion-rights supporters who cheered the board's surprise action in June were equally vocal in jeering its about-face.
"Shame! Shame! Shame!" some critics shouted as board chairman Bruce Edwards of Virginia Beach tried to gavel them into silence and a police officer ushered them out of the packed meeting room. After they were gone and the board recessed, abortion opponents applauded.
The board voted 13-2 to enact the regulations, including the provision requiring all abortion clinics - including the 20 already operating in Virginia - to meet the same architectural standards as new hospitals on issues ranging from doorway widths to room sizes. The board had previously voted 7-4 to exempt existing clinics from the building requirements, but some members changed their minds after Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, an anti-abortion Republican, said they had overstepped their authority and refused to certify the regulations.
Abortion opponents said the regulations will improve health and safety at medical facilities that have long operated without oversight.
"Virginia's women are better off after today's vote," Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said in a statement. "The hysterical claims of the abortion industry that today's vote denies access to health care are simply untrue."
State Health Commissioner Karen Remley told the board that all of the state's abortion clinics have already been inspected, and none have indicated they intend to close. Eleven have been licensed after submitting plans to correct deficiencies, while corrective plans for others are pending.
Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said that doesn't mean the clinics will be able to remain open.
"Of course they're all trying to make a good faith effort," she said, but some clinics will have to come up with as much as $1 million to "reinvent themselves as hospitals." Clinics have two years to meet the requirements.
Disappointed abortion-rights advocates directed much of their anger at Cuccinelli, accusing him of bullying board members into abandoning their independent judgment.
"It's confounding except to say that clearly the attorney general's intimidation tactics worked," said Katherine Greenier of the ACLU of Virginia.
Cuccinelli said in July that the building standards were mandated by the law passed by the General Assembly in 2011 requiring the licensure and regulation of abortion clinics, so the board had to include them in the regulations. He also told board member his office might not represent them if they ignored his advice again and got sued.
"I'm really stunned by the level of politics that entered into this debate," Keene said.
Jeff Winder of Nelson County accused Cuccinelli and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who also opposes abortion, of "taking tyrannical action to promote a religious right-wing agenda." Speaking during an hour long public hearing before the vote, he said the board did the right thing in June when it exerted its independence on the building standards issue.
"I encourage you to have the backbone to stand up for your convictions," he said.
Board member James H. Edmondson Jr. of McLean unsuccessfully tried to persuade his colleagues to stick with their previous position, saying they have an obligation to base their decisions based on sound medical and scientific evidence - none of which supports the strict building standards, he said.
"Please, don't be cowed by an assertion that you don't have the authority to do what our job is to do," he said.
Demonstrators also targeted the attorney general's advice. "Hey Cooch, stop bullying the board," a sign held by one said.
Cuccinelli has maintained that his advice to the board is based on the law, not ideology. The regulations now go back to Cuccinelli, who will decide whether to certify them now that the building standards have been reinserted.
"Whatever the decision, it will be determined solely on a legal basis - as was the decision on the prior version of the regulations - not on the basis of whether or not we agree with the policy," Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said in a statement.
Edmondson, who along with H. Anna Jeng of Norfolk voted against the regulations, said he and his colleagues "were thrown into a totally political situation and we didn't cope very well." He expressed frustration at what he said is a mixed message from the General Assembly.
"On one hand they say be a regulatory body - you are independent," Edmonson said. "On the other hand, 'Do as we say.'"
Edmondson and Jeng are among the five board members appointed by former Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat. The other 10 were appointed by McDonnell.
The regulations, which took effect on an emergency basis Jan. 1, also deal with issues including staff training, sanitation and equipment standards.
If the attorney general and the governor sign off on the regulations, they will be open to another public comment period before a final vote by the board next year.