By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, on Monday ordered a review of "extreme and punitive" state health rules that make it harder to operate abortion clinics, saying he would protect women's rights to make health decisions.
The review by the state Board of Health could overturn 2013 regulations set down by the previous Republican administration that forced abortion clinics to meet stricter hospital-style standards.
Under the tighter regulations, five of Virginia's 23 clinics that offer abortions have closed. Abortion rights advocates contend that the remaining 18 are threatened.
"I am concerned that the extreme and punitive regulations adopted last year jeopardize the ability of most women's health centers to keep their doors open and place in jeopardy the health and reproductive rights of Virginia women," McAuliffe said in a statement that coincided with National Women's Health Week.
The regulations were spearheaded by former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, McAuliffe's opponent for governor last year and a favorite of the conservative Republican Tea Party faction.
During the campaign, McAuliffe said he would stand as "brick wall" against efforts to erode women's rights to abortion.
McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also told a news conference he was appointing five new members to the 15-member Board of Health.
McAuliffe's review order underscored his liberal stance on social issues. His administration also declined to defend a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in the courts.
Victoria Cobb, president of The Family Foundation of Virginia, an anti-abortion group, called McAuliffe's move "grandstanding" for abortion rights campaigners.
But Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, applauded McAuliffe's decision. She said it showed that women's health issues would be decided on the basis of medicine, not politics.
The Falls Church Healthcare Center in northern Virginia has filed suit challenging the new regulations.
McAuliffe said keeping the health clinics open was also an economic issue since Virginia needed to be "open and welcoming to all" in order to spur economic growth.
(Editing by Ian Simpson and David Gregorio)