The Virginia board ordered to write stricter rules for abortion clinics will reconsider its recommendations after conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said last month that the board didn't go far enough.
The General Assembly directed the state Board of Health last year to devise new standards for some of the state's major abortion clinics. Abortion-rights supporters charged that the new rules were intended to shut down nearly two dozen facilities but declared victory in June when the health board voted 7-4 to exempt all of the existing clinics from the new rules.
Cuccinelli, however, rebuffed the board, charging that it ignored the intention of the law, prompting Gov. Bob McDonnell's staff to halt its review of the regulations.
Health officials said Monday that they will meet again, on Sept. 14, to reconsider their decision to exempt existing clinics, reopening an election-year abortion debate in a state with several hotly contested races on the November ballot, including the presidential election.
"I'll put it this way, until the board obtains certification from the attorney general's office, the regulatory process can't move forward," said Joe Hilbert, Health Department director of governmental and regulatory affairs. "And our challenge is to find a way to keep it moving forward."
Abortion-rights supporters have called Cuccinelli's ruling unprecedented and are hoping a showdown between the board and the attorney general might delay or derail the new regulations entirely. Those advocates charge that the new rules -- requiring abortion clinics to meet the tougher structural standards of hospitals, including wider hallways, larger operating rooms and bigger parking lots -- are onerous and costly to implement.
"The attorney general is using intimidation tactics and legal fiction to get his way," said Tarina Keene, chairwoman of the Virginia Coalition to Protect Women's Health.
Supporters of the stricter regulations are betting that the health board is likely to reverse itself if it reconsiders its earlier decision.
Four board members missed the June meeting, and McDonnell has since replaced one of them with a staunch anti-abortion advocate. Another McDonnell appointee who initially voted to exempt current abortion clinics later called for a second vote but was denied.
While Cuccinelli is taking the lead in rebuffing the health board, a spokesman for McDonnell indicated the governor also wants the regulations reconsidered.
"Gov. McDonnell believes that these proposed regulations concerning these types of outpatient clinics must be implemented as required by the General Assembly," spokesman Paul Logan said.