The Virginia Board of Health voted 12-1 Thursday to approve strict abortion clinic regulations that supporters say will protect women's health but that opponents, including the dissenting board member, say are aimed at putting most of the state's clinics out of business.
The vote came after an emotionally charged 90-minute public comment period and a three-hour review by the board, which made only minor changes to the regulations as drafted by Department of Health personnel. James Edmondson Jr. cast the only negative vote after his fellow board members rejected several amendments he proposed to relax the regulations, including one that would have exempted clinics performing only pharmaceutical abortions and others aimed at protecting patients' privacy.
"I think access will wind up being at risk in many parts of the state because of this, and that's too bad," Edmondson told reporters after the vote.
Edmondson, one of six members of the 15-member board appointed by Democratic governors before the election of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, said he believes restricting access to abortion is the primary aim of the General Assembly-mandated regulations.
Lawmakers passed legislation last winter requiring licensure and extensive regulation of abortion clinics. The attorney general's office and McDonnell must sign off on the temporary regulations, which will remain in effect while permanent ones are developed. Edmondson said he is not optimistic that the permanent regulations will be any more to his liking.
The board's vote prompted an outburst from one man in the audience.
"Government dogs! What the hell? You ought to know better," the man shouted before being escorted out of the room by security.
Earlier, board chairman Bruce Edwards chastised another audience member who stood and angrily denounced remarks made by a regulations proponent during the public comment period. Edwards also had to repeatedly gavel speakers to silence as they tried to exceed their two-minute limit.
Opponents of the regulations were disappointed but not surprised by the outcome.
"It's appalling that the Board of Health has rubber-stamped these regulations," abortion-rights supporter Dr. Wendy Klein said. "I think there is a political agenda here that has been highly effective in getting the public to believe there is a health issue where there is none. These regulations are designed to shut clinics down."
Rita Dunaway, an attorney for the Rutherford Institute, said the possible closures should not be a consideration.
"This argument would never even be attempted for medical facilities that are less politically sensitive than abortion clinics," she said
Chris Freund, vice president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said "the abortion industry" can well afford to make whatever changes are necessary to comply with the regulations.
"At least if a woman in Virginia makes the unfortunate choice to have an abortion, when she walks in she will be protected by minimal safety standards," Freund said.
The regulations apply to clinics performing at least five first-trimester abortions per month. They specify staffing levels, the types of equipment and supplies that must be maintained and other operational details. One of the few amendments Edmondson was able to get approved would require inspections at least every other year rather than annually, as department staff had proposed.
The regulations also would require facilities to comply with architectural standards on matters such as door widths and treatment room sizes. Many of Edmondson's failed amendments were intended to ease those requirements, which opponents argue are part of guidelines intended for new construction — not existing facilities.
"These are architectural standards — they are not about safety," said Dr. William Nelson, a former state Health Department official.
Louantha Kerr, however, held up enlarged photos of the exterior of a Newport News abortion clinic with boarded-up windows and narrow back doors that she suggested would be inadequate in an emergency.
"There were 733 abortions performed in this facility last year," she said. "I don't know about you, but I wouldn't take my pet to a facility like this."
Some of the speakers at the public hearing were clearly there more to oppose abortion than to advocate for the regulations. Frances Bouton of Suffolk, holding a placard picturing a healthy newborn next to an aborted fetus, said abortion is "a grave moral wrong" akin to slavery.
"The killing of a fellow human being is now legal in Virginia, but that does not make it morally right," she said.
Several opponents of the regulations pointed out that the women's health centers do more than provide abortions. They also provide low-cost breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings, contraceptives, prenatal care and other services.
Tasha Yingling said the closure of such facilities "will place thousands of women who don't have health insurance at risk."
Opponents also said first-trimester abortion is one of the safest surgical procedures.
"This is an early procedure that takes a matter of minutes and requires no incision," Klein told the board. She said the risk of a death is one in a million for first-trimester abortions, 100 in a million for colonoscopies.