Virginia Governor Orders Review of Abortion Clinic Regulations

While the Virginia Board of Health reviews policies that instituted "unprecedented construction requirements" on abortion clinics in the state, the regulations will be suspended.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe WikiMedia Commons

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Monday that he was directing the state’s health board to review the regulations governing clinics that provide abortion services.

“I am concerned that the extreme and punitive regulations adopted last year jeopardize the ability of most women’s health centers to keep their doors open and place in jeopardy the health and reproductive rights of Virginia women,” McAuliffe said at a press conference announcing four policy initiatives by his administration.

The directive requests that the Virginia Board of Health review policies that instituted “unprecedented construction requirements.” McAuliffe called for the regulations, which are set to take effect in June, to be suspended during the review process. The review is to be completed by no later than October 1 of this year.

During the press conference, McAuliffe also announced the appointments of five people to the state Board of Health, which is comprised of 15 board members. The appointments filled one existing vacancy and four additional seats that would have been empty in a month. The board is scheduled to meet on June 5.

McAuliffe promised during his gubernatorial campaign to reverse the clinic regulations implemented under former Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell.

In January 2013, McDonnell signed SB 924, which required that clinics that provide abortion services adhere to the same regulations as hospitals. Clinics were given from June to September to comply with the law, depending on when each clinic was inspected by the state.

The health board voted in June 2012 to exempt existing clinics from the building codes approved by the legislature. However, in September 2012, then attorney general Ken Cuccinelli told members that they lacked the authority to “grandfather” clinics. Cuccinelli, who would eventually lose to McAuliffe in the gubernatorial election, wrote to board members saying that if the board did not reverse the decision, the state would not defend them in any resulting litigation and as such would be responsible for any resulting legal fees. The board reversed its decision that month in a 13-2 vote.

The regulations are modeled after similar targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, which have forced clinics to close around the country. In Virginia, five of the state’s 23 clinics have been forced to close because of the regulations.

House Speaker William Howell (R-Stafford) told the Washington Post that the maneuver was about politics. “The General Assembly, by law, directed the Board of Health to establish regulations to protect the health and safety of women who seek an abortion,” said Howell. “This seems like another attempt by the McAuliffe administration to undermine a law they don’t like, and that is very troubling.” 

However, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia characterized the directive as “placing women’s health above politics.” In a statement following McAuliffe’s announcement, Kathy Greenier, director of the Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said, “The Board of Health should be focused on one thing—ensuring the health of all Virginians.” She added, “Unfortunately, by placing medically unnecessary and burdensome requirements on women’s health care providers, TRAP has the opposite effect. The regulations restrict access to needed medical care and undermine women’s health by forcing women’s health care centers to shut down if they can’t make or afford the medically unnecessary changes to their facilities.”

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, praised McAuliffe’s decision in a statement, saying that it was “past time” that the regulations be subject to an “objective and evidence-based” review.