POLITICS

Virginia abortion restrictions rewritten after backfiring

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Politics,Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

A Republican-led effort to reduce the availability of abortions in Virginia has apparently backfired, unintentionally opening the door for some of the state's abortion providers to provide more abortions than before.

As a result, the state has changed how it will enforce some of the more onerous requirements on women's health clinics, The Washington Examiner has learned.

Gov. Bob McDonnell signed off on regulations late last year that would require clinics that perform five or more first-trimester abortions per month to meet stricter, hospital-style standards, a move that abortion rights advocates claimed would force many of the state's 21 clinics to shut down.

But state officials discovered that requiring the facilities to meet stricter standards -- such as larger, better-equipped operating rooms -- could actually expand abortion services by allowing clinics once restricted to performing first-trimester abortions to provide medically trickier second-trimester abortions previously allowed only at hospitals.

The state has now reinterpreted some of the standards abortion providers would have to meet, giving clinics more leeway in retrofitting their buildings to meet the new rules. That would prevent an expansion of abortion services in some of the state's larger clinics, but the less restrictive rules also will allow many of the smaller clinics to remain open.

Abortion rights advocates hope the latest revisions will help many of those clinics continue to operate.

"But it's going to come at a high cost to clinics and to patients," said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. "This is not an easy or inexpensive process and that was clearly their goal."

The state's change in policy was quietly revealed when the Virginia Department of Health issued revised guidelines to clinic operators in February, according to documents obtained by The Examiner.

Joe Hilbert, the Health Department's director of governmental and regulatory affairs, said that while he was aware that some clinics would be able to expand their abortion services under the stricter guidelines, the state was relaxing its newly written rules based on "what we felt was appropriate to protect public health."

"I know that's an issue. I know that's a concern," Hilbert said of the potentially expanded abortion services. "But I really don't believe that was directly involved in that decision."

Clinics have until March 30 to apply for a license and must include with their application a plan to comply with the new structural rules by 2014. An on-site survey will take place within five weeks to review compliance with the new administrative regulations.

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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