By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Virginia on Friday required abortion clinics to meet stricter hospital-style standards that could force some go out of business, making it the latest state to tighten rules on the procedure.
The rules, passed overwhelmingly by the Virginia Board of Health, could force abortion providers to undertake costly renovations, widening hallways and installing new ventilation system and awnings. Opponents of the move said it could force some to close, while supporters contended it would improve safety.
Supporters of the new rules burst into applause after the panel's 11-2 vote, while opponents erupted in shouts of "shame." Board Chairman Bruce Edwards ordered police to clear the hearing room to end the tumult.
Board member Dr. Catherine Slusher defended passage of the rules, saying, "We're not closing (the clinics). We're improving them."
Republican Governor Robert McDonnell approved health regulations in December imposing hospital-style building codes on abortion clinics. The Board of Health on Friday had the final word on the changes.
Anti-abortion activists have increasingly turned their focus on enacting new restrictions at the state level to the procedure, which was made legal nationally by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.
States including Indiana, New Jersey and Texas have passed similar measures to those adopted by Virginia.
Last month North Dakota adopted the nation's most restrictive abortion law, effectively banning the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy. The state's Republican governor, who signed the bill, acknowledged at the time it will likely face legal challenges.
ISSUE IN GOVERNOR'S RACE
Abortion is shaping up as a major issue ahead of Virginia's November gubernatorial election.
The board voted last year to exempt existing clinics from the changes, a decision it reversed after State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said he would not defend the board against lawsuits arising from such a decision.
Cuccinelli is a Tea Party Republican locked in a tight race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe
The Susan B. Anthony List contributed $1.5 million to Cuccinelli's campaign in February and called the contest "a top priority" for the group.
McAuliffe, a former Democratic Party chairman supported by Planned Parenthood, said on his campaign website that he backs letting women make their own healthcare decisions without government interference.
Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said the new rules could force 15 of Virginia's 20 abortion clinics to close. Poor women would be the worst affected by the changes, she said.
"It's a pattern that we've seen happening across the country and in Virginia, and it's absolutely shameful," she said.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, said the new rules would protect women's health.
"We are inundated daily with examples of the horrors that result from the lack of oversight," she said in a statement.
The board's vote imposing hospital standards on clinics is 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.
Seven states, including Mississippi and Alabama, require hospital admitting privileges for abortion providers. Critics contend those laws restrict a woman's 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 and Gary Robertson; editing by Scott Malone, Andrew Hay, Cynthia Johnston and John Wallace)