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Va. health commissioner resigns over abortion clinic restrictions

Virginia's health commissioner resigned from her post on Thursday, citing the state's GOP-fueled regulations on abortion clinics as the reason for her departure
Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley resigned Thursday (Photo: AP/Bob Brown)
Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley resigned Thursday

Virginia's health commissioner resigned from her post on Thursday, citing the state's GOP-fueled regulations on abortion clinics as the reason for her departure.

Dr. Karen Remley abruptly ended her five years of service as commissioner, illuminating the national political battle over women's reproductive health within Republican-led state legislatures. In an email to stakeholders obtained by NBC News’ local affiliate, Remley directly attributes her departure to the harsh regulations on abortion clinics adopted by the commonwealth. Remley writes:

“Unfortunately, how specific sections of the Virginia Code pertaining to the development and enforcement of these regulations have been and continue to be interpreted has created an environment in which my ability to fulfill my duties is compromised and I can no longer in good faith continue in my role.”

Last month, the state’s board of health reversed a decision that initially exempted abortion clinics from new building code rules that apply to new hospitals in the state. All abortion clinics must now adhere to the same strict building standards of new hospitals. It does not apply to other outpatient surgical facilities, such as plastic surgery centers and dental offices.

This singling out of abortion services was seen by advocates as a backdoor way to restrict abortion services in the state. Abortion rights groups argued that as many as 15 out of the 20 clinics in all of Virginia would be forced to shut down due to the high costs in implementing the changes.

In her resignation letter to Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, Remley wrote that she was "personally committed" to the governor and his drive to lower abortion rates in Virginia. McDonnell accepted Remley's resignation, highlighting specifically her service for "two governors from two different parties, and all the citizens of Virginia."

Yet, her service was not without partisan infighting over abortion.

Remley is a holdover from the previous administration under Democrat Tim Kaine, which further demonstrated the tension between the two parties and their approaches on legislating women's health.

McDonnell, along with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, made waves early on in the debate on abortion clinic regulations by using their political muscle to influence Virginia's Board of Health. The initial ruling on the regulations allowed existing abortion clinics to be grandfathered into the strict regulations, leaving only new clinics to deal with the building codes. In June, the board's 7-4 ruling adopted the grandfathering amendment. But swift additions of  anti-abortion appointees to the board and political pressure put a tailspin on the initial ruling. By September, the board completely switched course and voted in a 13-2 decision now against the amendment.

Former Virginia governor and now U.S. Senate candidate Kaine swiftly came out against the health board's ruling. “These unnecessary regulations are a very clear attempt to infringe upon women’s constitutionally protected right to make their own health care decisions,” Kaine told the Washington Post last month.

Kaine is now in a tight Senate race against fellow former governor, Republican George Allen. And in a state that launched vaginal probes into national political discourse, the topic of abortion continues to take hold.

During a debate last week organized in part by the League of Women Voters, Allen ducked a question directly asking of his opinion on the controversial legislation requiring a woman seeking an abortion to undergo an invasive vaginal ultrasound.  Allen in his answer skirted the question, and went on to talk about the debt crisis - among other topics. News reports have noted that he remains mum on the topic of women's health as his female support continues to slip in polls.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll stakes Kaine and Allen in a dead-heat, with Kaine leading by one percentage point. Last week, his advantage was ahead by five points with 49% to Allen’s 44%.