Saturday, April 13, 2013

Virginia board meets on tightening abortion clinics standards

RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - The Virginia Board of Health is meeting on Friday on whether to require abortion clinics to meet stricter hospital-style standards, part of a push in a number of states to tighten abortion restrictions.

The proposal before the 15-member panel could force abortion providers to undertake potentially costly renovations, such as widening hallways and installing new ventilation systems and awnings.

Republican Governor Robert McDonnell approved health regulations in December that would impose hospital-style building codes on abortion clinics. Virginia has 20 abortion clinics.

The Board of Health, which has the final word on the changes, is meeting to approve McDonnell's rules.

Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Virginia, said the new requirements were unnecessary and expensive.

"There is the potential that some health providers won't be able to meet those requirements and will have to close as a result," she said.

The board voted last year to exempt existing clinics from the changes. It reversed itself in September after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a tea party Republican running for governor, warned the board that his office would not defend them against lawsuits arising from such a decision.

Final approval by the Board of Health would be the latest blow to abortion providers around the country. This week the Republican-led Arkansas Senate voted to bar state funds from going to any entity that provides abortions.

Similar measures have passed in other states, including Indiana, New Jersey and Texas. In the most restrictive anti-abortion action to date, North Dakota last month banned most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Legal experts have questioned whether that measure or a post-12-week ban would survive court challenges.

Seven states, including Mississippi and Alabama, require hospital admitting privileges for abortion providers. Critics say the laws restrict a woman's constitutional right to an abortion.

Virginia's General Assembly last week approved McDonnell's plan that blocks private insurance plans being sold through the new health benefits exchange from including abortion coverage. The exchanges are set up under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Virginia's legislature drew national attention last year with a bill signed by McDonnell that required an ultrasound procedure before an abortion.

A requirement for an invasive vaginal probe in some cases was removed from the measure after it drew national debate and was lampooned by late-night television comics.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; editing by Andrew Hay)


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