RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia Health Commissioner Karen Remley resigned Thursday over new GOP-backed regulations that could shutter most Virginia abortion providers as reproductive rights take center stage in pivotal Senate and presidential races.
Her resignation comes a little more than a month after the state Board of Health, coerced by Virginia's Republican attorney general, adopted new requirements that abortion clinics meet the same strict building standards as new hospitals. Abortion-rights advocates argued the strict standards could force most of the state's 20 clinics out of business.
"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 in good faith I can no longer serve in my role," Remley, a career health professional, wrote in her resignation letter to Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Her resignation is effective immediately.
The board initially exempted existing clinics from the tough construction standards, but Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli refused to certify those standards. The confrontational conservative, who's running for governor next year, contended that the board exceeded its authority and suggested that he might refuse to represent any member sued over the issue.
Abortion rights has been a key issue this election season in the swing state that could determine whether the Democrats retain their narrow U.S. Senate majority and whether President Barack Obama is re-elected.
Former Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who appointed Remley before McDonnell reappointed her, seized on the issue hours before his fourth and final debate with Republican George Allen in their close Senate race.
"It's unfortunate that a political focus on limiting women's access to health care has prompted her resignation after many years of diligent and faithful service to the Commonwealth, but I know Karen has many years of service still ahead of her," Kaine said in a statement.
Kaine has pressed the abortion issue hard in an effort to keep a lead among women voters. He has noted that Allen has supported "personhood" legislation that could effectively ban all abortions and some forms of contraception by conferring full legal rights on embryos from the instant of conception.
In her letter to McDonnell, Remley said she had honored her commitment to lower abortion rates "by both the application of evidence based approaches and also the thoughtful implementation of abortion regulations" if required by the General Assembly.
The issue is also mentioned in ads aired across Virginia by the campaigns of Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Obama's ad features Romney saying in a GOP primary debate that he would support an abortion ban should the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion be overturned. Romney's ad notes that he supports abortion in the cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of a pregnant woman.
McDonnell praised Remley for her "professionalism, intellect and dedication" and wished her well, but said nothing about her reason for resigning. He appointed Maureen Dempsey, deputy commissioner, to serve as interim commissioner.
Anna Scholl, executive director of the abortion-rights group ProgressVA, decried the events that led to Remley's departure.
"It's deplorable that the political machinations of Attorney General Cuccinelli and Governor McDonnell have compromised the ability of dedicated public servants like Commissioner Remley to promote the health of all Virginians," she said in a statement.
"Ken Cuccinelli and Bob McDonnell should be ashamed of what their right- wing agenda and bullying of the Board of Health has cost Virginia," she said.
Cuccinelli has insisted that his advice to the board was based on his interpretation of the law, not ideology. The legislation passed by the General Assembly requiring the regulations mandated the new-hospital construction standards, he has said.
Caroline Gibson, a spokeswoman for Cuccinelli, would only say Thursday that the office thanks Remley for her service and wishes her well.
Remley made her announcement _ an emotional letter to co-workers and colleagues _ in an email of her own, bypassing the McDonnell administration's press office. McDonnell's administration released a copy of her resignation letter to the governor, but she refused requests for an interview Thursday.
Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia, said the timing of the resignation "reeks of political posturing."
Larry O'Dell reported from Richmond, Va., and Bob Lewis reported from Blacksburg, Va.
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