Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli refused Monday to certify new regulations on abortion providers because state health officials chose to exempt existing facilities from some of the most onerous provisions.
Under regulations approved in June by the State Board of Health, facilities that perform five or more first trimester abortions a month must meet strict building structure guidelines that are normally reserved for hospitals, including larger operating rooms, bigger parking lots and wider hallways. Existing facilities, however, would be exempt from those new rules, the board ruled 7-4.
That violated the intentions of the General Assembly, which last year called on the board to draft emergency regulations for abortion providers, Cuccinelli's office said. Cuccinelli, a Republican, is pro-life.
In a one-paragraph letter, Senior Assistant Attorney General Allyson Tysinger told the board it "has exceeded its authority."
"The board does not have the statutory authority to adopt these regulations," she wrote.
Abortion-rights groups said the provision is necessary or current providers will have to make costly, unnecessary changes and some may have to close their doors.
The ruling is not final but represents the official legal opinion of the state, though other offices in the executive branch will also provide their recommendations. Gov. Bob McDonnell has the ultimate say, and he could send the regulations back to the board with amendments.
He indicated Monday that he would not support regulations he doesn't deem faithful to the intent of lawmakers.
Cuccinelli's decision came just hours after he held a conference call on behalf of Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney to bash President Obama's handling of Solyndra. Romney's campaign has been dogged by repeated attacks from Democrats that he would curb women's rights if elected.
It also comes days after McDonnell named Dr. John Seeds, an outspoken anti-abortion activist, to the Board of Health, which could have an impact on how the board revisits the issue if McDonnell does not approve the new regulations.
McDonnell has faced criticism this year for at one point backing a bill that would have required women to receive a transvaginal ultrasound before an abortion.
"With this appointment, this activist governor continues to display a disdain for women's health, playing politics with lives instead of acting in the public interest," said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
Anti-abortion groups immediately claimed victory.
"Requiring that Virginia's abortion centers have adequate facilities for emergency personnel to enter with emergency equipment necessary to transport patients to hospitals is simply a matter of caring about the health of women," said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia. "It is sad that the abortion industry is more concerned about their profits than they are about the health of women in Virginia."