Virginia Lawmakers Battle Again Over Women's Health

Feb 2, 2017

During the presidential debates, President Trump pledged to send abortion “back to the states.” That means that regardless of what ultimately happens with the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade, advocates on both sides of the abortion issue should be paying close attention to what’s happening in their state legislature. And here in Virginia, there’s a LOT going on in the area of women’s reproductive rights and health. WMRA’s Emily Richardson-Lorente reports.

RALPH NORTHAM: “The Senate will come to order. The senators will please take their seats …”

Since Virginia’s legislative session began on January 11th, state lawmakers have introduced eleven abortion-related bills. Only 3 of the 11 are actually championed by anti-abortion advocates, but they include two big “pro-life” priorities: cutting funding to Planned Parenthood and banning abortion after 20-weeks of pregnancy. On the flip side, two “pro-choice” bills are aimed at defining and expanding access to contraception. And six other bills would essentially roll back existing regulations that abortion-rights advocates deem harmful and unnecessary. Four of those bills have actually already failed.

GAIL DEADY: The restrictions that we've seen in Virginia are a way of chipping, chipping away access to abortion. Roe v. Wade is just being gutted.

That’s Gail Deady. She’s a lawyer at the ACLU of Virginia. Her group has argued against mandatory ultrasounds, 24-hour waiting periods and other state regulations that they feel impinge on a woman’s right to abortion. 

DEADY: When you look at each of those little restrictions piece by piece, someone may think, ‘Oh, that sounds reasonable, that will protect women's health.’ But in reality, they’re just about the end goal, and the end goal is to make abortion illegal.

VICTORIA COBB: Yeah, I mean, we would love to see a court that looks at it and reverses Roe.

That second voice is Victoria Cobb, long-time president of the Virginia-based Family Foundation, a conservative Christian advocacy and lobbying group.

COBB: You never have a bill that just bans abortion in all cases. But the goal is you're moving the ball forward, you're making progress, you're saving unborn lives.

One of the bills the Family Foundation has lobbied for is House Bill 2264, which — among other things — would effectively eliminate state funding for Planned Parenthood. That bill advanced out of subcommittee on Tuesday, and will likely see a full House vote next week. The Foundation has also lobbied for House Bill 1473, the bill dubbed “The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” That would ban abortions after 20 weeks, midway through a woman’s 2nd trimester. The current limit in Virginia is about 24 weeks — the so-called “point of viability.” One big challenge with pulling that back a month?

JILL ABBEY: Oftentimes, an anomaly is not diagnosed until twenty weeks.

That’s Jill Abbey, Administrator at the Medical Center for Women, which runs four of the 14 clinics that perform abortions in Virginia. She’s been working with pregnant patients for 26 years, and says she sees four or five women a week who are dealing with fetal abnormalities — some catastrophic.

ABBEY: Heart defects, fetuses without a brain. Fetuses where there's no amniotic fluid, and so the lungs cannot develop. And a woman can carry that pregnancy all the way to term and the baby suffocates. Just, you know, just an amazing amount of things that would cause a woman to be referred to us for a second trimester procedure — and oftentimes just beyond the twenty week mark.

The 20-week abortion ban bill will come up for consideration in the House’s Committee for Courts of Justice soon. If it ultimately passes, advocates on both sides fully expect Governor McAuliffe to veto it, as he has pledged to do with the Planned Parenthood funding cuts.

GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE (news clip courtesy of WSLS 10): I will veto that, I will not allow these bills to attack women or anyone else …

Another bill up for consideration TODAY in the House Committee on Commerce and Labor is HB2267. This would allow Virginia women to receive a 12-month supply of birth control with a single prescription. Advocates for the bill point to data showing that this could reduce unintended pregnancies by as much as 30%, and abortions by as much as 46%. A similar bill was introduced in the Virginia Senate last year by Senator Mamie Locke, but it died in committee.

MAMIE LOCKE: It’s another form of hypocrisy on the part of those who say that they are pro-life. Why not try to prevent unplanned pregnancies?

Locke has been a Virginia state senator for 13 years. She’s proudly “pro-choice” and believes most Virginians are as well, but …

MAMIE LOCKE: At every turn, a woman's right to make choices about her health care are being restricted — primarily by men.

While men DO outnumber women in the General Assembly by more than 5 to 1, they’re not the only ones voting against abortion.

SIOBHAN DUNNAVANT: I'm pro-life. I would prefer there never to have to be another abortion — ever.

That’s Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, a first-term senator and one of seven “pro-life” women in the General Assembly. She’s also a practicing OB/GYN.

DUNNAVANT: And I do have an advantage with the credibility of being an OB/GYN to help frame the conversation where we can find consensus. And that would make me happy because I'd like to think we weren't doing things like having abortions after twenty weeks when we just don't need to.

There’s no doubt that later-term abortions energize advocates on both sides of the  issue. But take a close look at the numbers tracked by the Virginia Department of Health, and you’ll see that of the 19,000 abortions Virginia women received in 2014, less than half of one percent occurred at 20 weeks or later.