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Virginia Democrats pass bills easing abortion restrictions

Cropped Photo: Wolfgang Moroder / CC BY-SA 3.0
Cropped Photo: Wolfgang Moroder / CC BY-SA 3.0(WNDU)
Published: Feb. 27, 2020 at 3:30 PM EST
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Abortion restrictions that were enacted when Republicans controlled Virginia’s General Assembly are being undone in legislation approved by the Democrats who are now in charge.

The House on Thursday gave final passage to a bill that would roll back provisions including a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and a requirement that women seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound and counseling. The measure would also undo the requirement that abortions be provided by a physician, allowing nurse practitioners to perform them, and do away with strict building code requirements on facilities where abortions are performed.

The Senate companion measure passed earlier in the week. The legislation now goes to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who supports it.

Abortion-rights advocacy groups praised the legislation's passage. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia called it the first-ever “proactive bill on access to safe, legal abortion” in Virginia’s history.

“When this legislation goes into effect, Virginians will no longer have to navigate an obstacle course of delays and barriers in order to access a safe and legal abortion,” said Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

The measures passed largely along party lines, with staunch opposition from Republicans and religious advocacy groups that testified against it in committee hearings.

Republican Del. Kathy Byron said in a floor speech Thursday that the changes would lead to women being less informed about “maybe one of the most important decisions that they ever make.”

“What we're doing today is we're voting to deny women complete information on what an abortion means, its consequences, its implications, its alternatives," she said.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who sponsored that chamber's version of the bill, said the measure was doing away with medically unnecessary requirements. She said it was particularly important because women sometimes need an abortion to complete a miscarriage.

“We're requiring an ultrasound, and a woman has miscarried,” she said of one of the existing requirements.

The bills are advancing at a time when abortion-rights advocates are increasingly worried the nation's highest court could overturn or chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a nationwide right to abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled next week to hear its first major abortion case since the addition of two justices appointed by President Donald Trump.

Abortion-rights advocates have said the changes will make Virginia a “safe haven” for abortion access for women in neighboring conservative states.

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ORIGINAL STORY:

Virginia lawmakers are advancing legislation that would undo restrictions on abortion put in place several years ago when Republicans controlled the legislature.

The Virginia Senate voted 20-20 on Monday, with a tie-breaking vote from Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, to approve

, known as the "Reproductive Health Protection Act." However, because the Senate amended the measure, the House has to agree to the changes before it goes to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's desk for his signature for it to become law.

It previously passed the House of Delegates on a 52-45 vote.

The House bill repeals a series of abortion restrictions, including a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, as well as a requirement that women seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound and counseling.

It also rolls back the requirement that an abortion be provided by a physician, allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform first trimester abortions.

Republicans argued that the bill would make abortions less safe. Supporters of the legislation said current Virginia laws are not medically necessary and make obtaining an abortion overly burdensome.

The bill, which is part of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's legislative agenda, would also withdraw strict building code requirements on facilities that provide abortions.

"These laws have been about shaming women, stigmatizing abortion, shutting off access, discouraging doctors from providing this care. And we say, we've had enough, the voters in Virginia have had enough, and now we're going to act on it," Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said

Pro-choice groups say the restrictions now likely to be repealed injected politics into a decision that should be made by a woman and her doctor and made obtaining an abortion overly burdensome. Abortion opponents argued the laws protect pregnant women's health and safety and are prudent given the gravity of the decision to obtain an abortion.

"There is no other procedure we deal with that ends the life of another person," said Republican Sen. Stephen Newman, who opposed the bill.

The bills are advancing at a time when pro-choice advocates are increasingly worried the nation's highest court could overturn or chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a nationwide right to abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled in March to hear its first major abortion case since the addition of two justices appointed by President Donald Trump.

"If ever there is a time to protect a woman's bodily autonomy, that time is now," said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, the sponsor of the Senate bill, who discussed her personal experiences during her pregnancies while advocating for the measure.

Keene said if "the worst-case scenario happens," Virginia needs to be "a safe haven" for women in bordering states that are moving to ban abortion outright the moment Roe is overturned.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, rates Virginia's current laws as "hostile."

Data from the Virginia Department of Health show the number of facilities providing abortions has fallen from 20 in 2012, the first year in which the department began licensing the facilities, to 14 this year. The facilities are all located in populated areas, and the one furthest west is in Roanoke, according to the department.

Rachel Scruggs, a 25-year-old from Manassas, said Virginia's current laws were a "demeaning" stumbling block when she sought an abortion after finding out she was pregnant with a partner who she said was emotionally and verbally abusive.

"Having an abortion was the best decision for my family, and I've never once regretted that decision," said Scruggs, who was already a mother to a son with a developmental disability. "But being forced to go through a medically unnecessary ultrasound, mandated biased counseling and unfortunately to come back at another time due to the 24-hour waiting period was demeaning to me and a huge burden for my family."

Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN, saidy she did not object to the provision removing the ultrasound requirement. But she called the 24-hour waiting period an "incredibly prudent" intervention.

Dunnavant described what she called the "painful" experience of counseling patients who acted quickly to have an abortion because they were facing pressure to do so, only to later regret their decision.

There is no harm in giving a woman a day to consider the decision, she said.

Debate over a different abortion bill last year erupted into all-out political warfare after a video went viral of Democratic Del. Kathy Tran acknowledging that her legislation would allow abortions up until moments before birth.

Northam's attempts to defend the legislation in a radio interview led to accusations from prominent Republicans that he supports infanticide.

"They learned their lesson last year," said Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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