By Laura Kebede
RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - The Virginia state health board voted on Friday to require existing abortion clinics to meet stricter hospital building codes, a move clinic supporters say could force facilities to make expensive changes or close.
The board in June had exempted existing abortion clinics from meeting the building code rules for new hospitals that can require modifications such as wider hallways and additional parking. It voted 13 to 2 on Friday to reverse that decision.
Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli, a Republican known for his conservative social views, had argued against that earlier decision, saying the health board did not have the authority to challenge the intent of a 2011 law that treats abortion clinics as hospitals.
Abortion-rights supporters, who had packed the hearing room, stood and chanted "shame, shame, shame" as the vote was read and security officers escorted them from the room.
"I'm exhausted because I've been going to these meetings for over a year," said Shelley Abrams, director of A Capital Women's Health, a Richmond abortion clinic. "We've complied with every rule except these architectural requirements."
Anti-abortion activists said the board's decision would protect women who choose to get an abortion.
"I'm against it, but if you're going to do it, it should be safe," Williamsburg resident Jerry Moran said. "Safety of women should be the primary objective."
The board typically has exempted existing medical facilities from new construction codes approved by state lawmakers, limiting them to additions, renovations and new building.
More than half of the clinics have submitted plans to comply with the state codes.
"It is unprecedented to force existing health centers to comply with building regulations intended for new construction, and the board acted well within its authority in voting to amend these regulations in June," said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
(Editing by David Bailey and Eric Walsh)