Bristol Women's Health opened in summer 2022 across Gate City Highway from the Bristol Casino. Photo by Megan Schnabel.
Bristol Women's Health opened this summer across Gate City Highway from the Bristol Casino. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

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RICHMOND – When Steve Newman on a Friday in late June first heard the news of the Supreme Court’s decision to send abortion back to the states, the historical significance of the ruling was not lost on him. 

“I do believe that many Americans have been looking forward to undoing what was an incredibly bad law under Roe v. Wade, which produced a right that really was not there in the Constitution,” Newman, a Republican state senator from Bedford County, told Cardinal News in a recent interview. “But I wish it would have come earlier.”

State Sen. Steve Newman. Courtesy of Newman.

Within an hour of the court’s decision going public, Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced that he had asked four Republican lawmakers – including Newman and his Republican colleague Del. Kathy Byron, who also hails from Bedford County – to draft legislation that would “chart the most successful path forward” for the commonwealth on this issue.

“The Supreme Court of the United States has rightfully returned power to the people and their elected representatives in the states,” Youngkin said in a statement at the time. “I’m proud to be a pro-life governor and plan to take every action I can to protect life.”

Almost seven months later, Youngkin’s signature abortion legislation will be before a Senate subcommittee Friday. Authored by Newman, Senate Bill 1385 seeks to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. Physicians who violate the law could be charged with a Class 4 felony, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine.

“This bill is called the Pain-Capable Bill, because we tried to pick that time when a child can feel pain, and that is in the 15-week area,” Newman, who has been pro-life for 32 years, said in the interview. “I think it’s exactly where the science is on where a baby can feel pain.”

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a nonprofit with about 60,000 members, the science conclusively establishes that a human fetus does not have the capacity to experience pain until after at least 24 to 25 weeks. 

Byron filed an identical proposal in the House. Her House Bill 2278 has yet to be assigned to a committee. Byron declined to be interviewed for this story.

Last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was one of its most momentous and controversial decisions in decades. In a dramatic reversal, the court found that the Constitution does not guarantee a right to abortion. By a 5-4 vote, the court’s conservative majority overturned the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that had stood as one of the most debated rulings in the court’s history, allowing states to decide if abortions should be sanctioned.

“It was good to have this returned back to the States, and that’s where we are now,” Newman said. “Individual states can and should make these decisions under the proper reading of the Constitution, and that’s what we are doing today.”

Although Youngkin’s four-member panel – which also includes Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland – never met in person, Newman said that the lawmakers conferred by phone “a number of times” to draft the legislation. 

“The governor stated on the campaign trail what he thought a bill that could pass would look like,” Newman said. “So we had a pretty good idea what the four corners would be, and we were able to take that and round the edges. I was pleased to assist in coming up with a bill that would have a chance in this divided government.”

While Byron’s proposal will likely pass the House, where Republicans hold a 52-48 majority, Newman’s measure faces an uphill battle in the state Senate, where Democrats last week bolstered their majority to 22-18 by flipping the seat vacated by former Sen. Jen Kiggans, who now represents Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District. 

And Senate Democrats made clear that there will be no compromise on abortion rights in Virginia. 

State Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. Courtesy of Lucas.

“I will do everything in my power to stop it,” Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said of Newman’s bill. Lucas, who as the President pro tempore leads the Democratic charge against Youngkin’s proposals in the Senate, also chairs the powerful Senate Education and Health Committee, where all legislation related to reproductive rights lands first. 

Despite today’s hyper-partisan political climate, the two key players in the Senate’s standoff over abortion have been friends for years. 

“I love Senator Newman,” Lucas told Cardinal News in an interview at her office at the state Capitol in Richmond Thursday. “Before they separated Democrats from Republicans, we were seat mates, and we stayed there for 12 years together.” 

But Lucas won’t let her friendship with her Republican colleague get in the way of doing what she believes is right. “As good friends as we are, we have some philosophical differences when it comes to social issues,” she said. “I don’t hold it against him, but we both understand that my mission is to defeat this bill.”

Newman confirmed that he talks to Lucas every single day. “People might be shocked how much Senator Lucas and I talk and how well we get along,” he said in the interview. “While we very much disagree on the policy, I think we’ll work together on the legislative process. She’s been very honorable in working with me, so I will continue to work with Senator Lucas.”

Despite the odds of his bill making it out of committee, Newman considers his proposal a compromise that he hopes at least some Democrats will get behind because it doesn’t seek to ban abortion entirely.

Under current law, abortions are legal in the commonwealth in the first and second trimesters. They are only legal in the third trimester if continuing the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or “substantially and irremediably impair” her mental or physical health.

“I think if we are going to get some Democrat support, it’s a number that’s pretty close to where we’ll need to be,” Newman said of the 15-week threshold in his bill.

The majority of abortions in the United States occur during the first trimester of a pregnancy. In 2020, 93% of abortions occurred during the first trimester – that is, at or before 13 weeks of gestation, according to the CDC. An additional 6% occurred between 14 and 20 weeks of pregnancy, and 1% were performed at 21 weeks or more of gestation.

The same data found that in Virginia, 55% of abortions occurred during the first six weeks, another 31% between seven and nine weeks and 11% between 10 and 13 weeks. Of a total of 15,603 abortions logged in the commonwealth in 2020, only 101 occurred between 14 and 15 weeks, with another 346 between 16 and 21 weeks.

But abortion providers in Virginia believe that the government should stay out of the abortion debate altogether. 

“The goal of any abortion ban is to stop people from accessing healthcare and to take away people’s power over their own bodies, lives and futures, it’s a violation of basic human rights,” said Anne Logan Bass, a Roanoke-based family nurse practitioner who provides a wide array of services, including abortions, at 14 different Planned Parenthood sites in four states. 

Should an abortion ban like Newman’s proposal become law in Virginia, it would force patients to travel out of state, and if they are unable to do so, they would be forced into “untenable situations for they are potentially carrying a pregnancy against their will or one that may be dangerous to their health,” Bass said. “My patients throughout the state could be denied time-sensitive, essential even life-saving healthcare, just like what we have seen in other states with abortion bans like this.”

It’s impossible to anticipate all of the personal and medical circumstances that can unfold over the course of a pregnancy, Bass said. “Every pregnancy is different, and we need to acknowledge the complexities of medical decisions, and we really need to respect patients and family decisions. Politicians are not doctors and they have no business interfering in these decisions.”

And Jamie Lockhart, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said neither Newman’s nor Byron’s bill includes a provision for when a woman receives a severe fetal diagnosis where the pregnancy is not viable. “Both the Senate and House versions do not provide any sort of exceptions for those cases, and they don’t account for the fact that younger people and people with chronic health conditions don’t often find out they are pregnant until after 15 weeks,” she said. 

Lockhart said her group opposes any legislation that puts politicians “in the middle of private health decisions” that should be left to each patient and their medical provider. “When it comes to a 15-week ban and how politicians attempt to pass this off as a compromise, the truth is there is no compromising on people’s rights,” Lockhart said. 

And the proposals by Newman and Byron aren’t the only measures aimed at curtailing abortion that Republicans introduced this year – some seek to criminalize the procedure altogether, from the moment of conception.

A bill by Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, would prohibit all abortions, with the exception of pregnancies that occurred through incest, rape or if the procedure is performed to save the life of the mother. Hackworth’s SB 1284 also provides that any person who performs an unlawful abortion is guilty of a Class 4 felony.

Hackworth told Cardinal News that he has held the no-compromise position on abortion all his life. “I believe that life does truly begin at conception. That’s when the union is and when the zygote is formed, and all the scientists agree that there is a form of life,” he said. “As a Republican, as a Christian and as a conservative, when Roe v. Wade was reversed, I knew in my heart that’s what I needed to do.”

To Hackworth, 47, his stance on abortion is deeply personal. At age 13, he got on a bus from far Southwest Virginia to Washington, D.C. to march in a Right to Life rally, which left a profound impression on him. “It really changed my life to see the passion by thousands of people about life,” he said.  

His views were further deepened when his granddaughter was stillborn at 32 weeks. “I remember holding her hand that was perfectly formed. To me, all forms of life at whatever stage is precious and I believe in preserving it. All life is worth protecting.”

Hackworth admitted that he has grappled with including the exceptions in his bill.

“I’ll be honest with you, that wasn’t an easy decision, because I have a close friend who has a daughter they were able to adopt that was the product of a rape,” he said. “The mother chose to give the baby up for adoption in another state, and it has been God sent. But I get it, and I struggle with what to do there, but if there was a rape and the mother said she couldn’t go through with it, there is the exception in there for that.”

But Hackworth said that he did not experience any pushback from his Republican colleagues for introducing a bill that goes much further than the Youngkin-endorsed bill sponsored by Newman. “Me and the governor talked, and he thanked me for writing my bill. I think we all agree that any bill that protects lives, if it can be passed, we’re for it.”  

Hackworth added that he respects his fellow Republicans who are cautious to support his proposal in an election year when all of the state’s 140 legislative seats are on the ballot.  

“I think we all want to be very sensitive, we understand the political climate that we are in, and sometimes what is good for me may not be good for other people and their district,” Hackworth said. “That’s why I have not pressured anybody to sign on to my bill. It is what it is.”

Despite its far-reaching implications, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Newman are backing Hackworth’s proposal as co-sponsors. 

“It’s a very well thought out bill,” Newman said. “I am going to vote for every bill that saves a life. We can always work with people who want to save lives. I am pro-life, that’s very much where my constituents are. I am in favor of a bill that would begin at conception, that’s where the Hackworth bill is, and I will vote for that bill. There’s been no hiding the ball with me.”

Hackworth’s measure will also be before the Senate subcommittee Friday, but the sponsor himself has no illusions about its fate. 

“I think there is little hope that my bill is going to see the light of day, but I think that there are variations of this bill that might,” Hackworth said. 

Other abortion related proposals – all filed by Republicans in the House – include HB 1865, sponsored by Del. Phillip Scott, R-Fredericksburg, that would ban abortion based on a person’s supposed reason for seeking one. And HB 2270 by Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, would reinstate mandated biased counseling before an abortion.

A so-called Born Alive Bill would require healthcare providers attempting to terminate a pregnancy to “preserve the life and health of a human infant who has been born alive” following such a procedure. Under HB 1795, sponsored by Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, breaking that law would be a Class 4 felony. Freitas also introduced HB 1894, the HOV Personhood Bill, which counts a fetus as a car passenger in HOV lanes.

One of the most far-reaching proposals was filed by Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County. March’s HB 1395 not only provides that life begins at conception and each person is accorded the same rights and protections guaranteed to all persons by the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of Virginia, and the laws of the commonwealth beginning at the moment of conception, but the proposal also repeals all provisions of the Code of Virginia allowing for the performance of abortions, banning the procedure altogether, with no exceptions.

For Lucas, the state senator from Portsmouth, all attempts at limiting access to safe abortions are non-starters for Senate Democrats. 

“This is the 50th year of us having the right to have reproductive choices here in Virginia, and we are going to keep it that way, because it has saved the lives of countless numbers of women, especially women of color,” said Lucas, who was 29 when the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 that the Constitution conferred the right to choose to have an abortion.

“Back when I was a young woman, a lot of women were dying in back alleys and other places, because they did not have access to safe and affordable reproductive healthcare,” Lucas said. “The thing that a lot of people misunderstand is that reproductive health is not just about having an abortion.”

Lucas cited testimony from Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from Florida, who last week shared with Congress a personal story from the late 1960s when she was forced to carry to term her baby that was pronounced dead seven months into her pregnancy because abortion was still prohibited. 

“How insensitive can a person be knowing that a woman is carrying a deceased fetus and not allow her to have an abortion? Fortunately she survived it, but she could have died,” Lucas said. 

“And that is the problem with a lot of women who have all kinds of pregnancies where the fetus is not viable or to carry the pregnancy to term will be detrimental to the life of the woman,” she said. “It does not always begin and end with having an abortion, what they are trying to do is to make abortion an issue with blinders on, like women just do not want to have this child. There are a multiplicity of other reasons why this reproductive healthcare is necessary.”

Despite signs that neither side was willing to move on abortion, Newman had not given up that his bill might get enough votes if it made it to the Senate floor. But that possibility became less likely last week, when former NFL defensive player Aaron Rouse of Virginia Beach defeated his Republican opponent Kevin Adams, giving Democrats a more robust majority in the chamber. 

“I can tell you that before the most recent special election in Virginia Beach, we had been working with Senate Democrats in trying to find a pathway, and I felt very good about that opportunity, except for the committee process, that’s kind of a problem,” Newman said.

Democrats, Newman said, could “stack” their committees, meaning they could bolster panels deciding the fate of Republican abortion legislation with members that are decisively opposed to the latter. 

But Lucas said Thursday that there had not been any changes. “There will be no stacking,” she said. “This bill will be passed by indefinitely or defeated based on the same numbers of Democrats and Republicans who sat on the committee last year, and in the year before.”

When asked about her strategy for dealing with Newman’s bill, Lucas smiled. “We’re going to follow whatever recommendation comes out of the subcommittee Friday,” she said. “But I’m going to stop it wherever I have to, it doesn’t matter where that is.”

Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.