Va. General Assembly agrees to regulate abortion clinics as hospitals
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Rosalind S. Helderman
The Washington Post
The Virginia General Assembly has agreed that abortion clinics should be regulated as hospitals instead of physician's offices, a move that antiabortion activists have sought for almost two decades, insisting that it would improve clinic safety.
Abortion rights advocates say it will make the state one of the most restrictive for abortions in the country and could force as many as 17 of the state's 21 abortion clinics to close.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has said he will sign the bill, which gives the state's Board of Health 280 days from the law's enactment to write new rules for clinics that perform at least five first-trimester abortions a month.
The bill's passage came as the Democratic-led state Senate voted 20 to 20 Thursday to approve the measure after a lengthy and emotional debate. The tie was broken by Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who cast his vote in favor of the bill. All 18 of the chamber's Republicans backed the bill, as did two conservative Democrats.
Antiabortion activists hailed the vote as the most significant victory they've achieved in Virginia in years. Abortion rights groups said they think the regulations will place an unconstitutional burden on a woman's ability to get an abortion in Virginia, and pledged to sue.
The practical impact of the vote will rest heavily on guidelines ultimately approved by the Virginia Board of Health. Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said she fears the worst, though the 15-member board is dominated by holdover appointments made by former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
She said future rules could dictate the width of hallways and doorways, impose new staffing requirements and govern laundry and food facilities, rules that would require renovations that many clinics would find cost-prohibitive.
"I'm not thinking best-case scenario. I'm thinking worst-case scenario," she said.
Antiabortion activists said those fears are overstated and insisted that they do not aim to shut down Virginia clinics.
Clinics that perform first-trimester abortions in Virginia are regulated similarly to doctor's offices in which colonoscopies and cosmetic surgery are conducted. Antiabortion activists have long said that clinics need stiffer rules, more like those imposed on outpatient ambulatory surgical centers.
In recent weeks, they have cited the case of a Philadelphia-area clinic recently shut down after authorities discovered a series of botched and illegal abortions; inspectors discovered containers of fetus parts.
In response, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) fired state health department workers this month for not monitoring clinics more closely.
"These are health professionals who are going to promulgate appropriate regulations," said Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb, speaking about the state's Board of Health. "It's very typical of the other side that rather than fight what this bill does, they want to fight the biggest extreme of what this bill could be."
The vote breaks a longstanding stalemate on abortion issues in the Virginia General Assembly, where bills to impose new regulations on abortion clinics have for years been approved by the GOP-led House of Delegates but killed by a Senate committee stacked with abortion rights supporters.
Indeed, the Senate's Education and Health Committee has dispatched similar legislation this year. But in the waning days of this year's legislative session, scheduled to conclude Saturday, Republican House members were able to use a parliamentary procedure to force a rare vote of the full Senate on the issue.
On Monday, Republicans slid a surprise amendment dealing with the abortion issue into a bill that had been approved by the Senate that requires hospitals and nursing homes to write policies on infection control.
That sent the issue directly to the floor of the Senate, where several conservative Democrats have always warned their leadership that they would vote with Republicans if ever forced to take a position on an abortion issue.
In August, Virginia Attorney Gen. Ken T. Cuccinelli (R) issued a legal opinion indicating that he thought the state's Board of Health had the authority to regulate abortion clinics.
In the months since, however, the board has made no move to do so, and some antiabortion activists had been critical of McDonnell for not pressuring the board to do so.
Though McDonnell has not made abortion a major focus of his first 13 months in office, he was one of the legislature's most vocal voices in opposition to the procedure when he served in the Virginia House of Delegates. He has said he supports clinic regulations.
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