The Virginia Senate Education and Health subcommittee meets Friday. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
The Virginia Senate Education and Health subcommittee meets Friday. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

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RICHMOND – A Senate panel on Friday rejected three Republican proposals seeking to limit access to abortion in Virginia, one of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s legislative priorities for this year after the U.S. Supreme Court in a historic decision last June returned the authority over women’s reproductive rights back to the states. 

Senate Bill 1385 was Youngkin’s signature legislation, which a Democratic-controlled Senate Education and Health subcommittee defeated by a 6-4 vote. Sponsored by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford, it would have banned most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation while making a violation of the law a Class 4 felony, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. 

A companion bill that mirrors Newman’s proposal has yet to be heard in the House of Delegates. House Bill 2278, sponsored by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, has yet to be assigned to a committee. It is likely to pass in the House, but will face similar resistance in the Senate as Newman’s bill. 

Both Newman and Byron were part of a four-member panel appointed by Youngkin on the same day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year to draft legislation using the 15-week threshold as its basis. The small group also included Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland.

Youngkin-spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said that as a pro-life governor, Youngkin was disappointed in Friday’s votes, but that he would continue to work with the legislature to find a path forward for protecting life.

“Polling demonstrates that 82% of Virginians want a reasonable compromise on abortion,” Porter said, referring to a recent poll by the Democrats for Life Education Fund.

“While Virginians have rejected Democrats’ radical previous attempts for allowing abortion up until the moment of birth, now is the time to find common ground. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act is focused on providing better quality healthcare for mothers and the unborn,” Porter said, adding that Youngkin looks forward to the legislation being brought up in the House.

Also by a 6-4 vote, the panel nixed a more far-reaching measure by Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County. SB 1284 sought to prohibit all abortions, with the exception of pregnancies that occurred through incest, rape or if the procedure is performed to safe the life of the mother. The bill also would have recognized that life begins at conception.

A crowd waits for the subcommittee’s decision on abortion bills.

The committee also rejected SB 1483, sponsored by Dunnavant, that would have limited abortions to “during the second trimester” and before viability, which is defined in the legislation as 24 weeks or more or “in the estimation of three doctors,” but at least 22 weeks. Under current law, abortions are permitted up until the end of the second trimester of pregnancy, or about 26 weeks.

Newman said on Friday that he viewed his proposal as the “middle ground” that both Republicans and Democrats should get behind.

“We think it’s a carefully crafted bill that establishes that certain types of abortions are still lawful, and there are exceptions for the life and health of the mother, and rape and incest in this bill,” Newman told the committee, of which he is a member.

“This bill does not remove the ability for miscarriage and stillbirth and in no way does this bill criminalize the woman at all,” Newman said.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Cole James, who served as Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources between 1994 and 1996 under then-Gov. George Allen, said Newman’s bill addressed the needs and well-being of women and children and protected both.

“We need not to pit the mother against the child,” she said, adding that there are some who did not want to see the exceptions for rape and incest in the bill. “We need to find consensus on something that we as Virginians all ought to be able to come together on. Consensus by definition means that everybody doesn’t get everything they want,” James said.

Hackworth said of his measure, which would have banned abortion entirely with few exceptions, that he decided to file the bill because of his firm belief that life begins at conception.

“I know this is a sensitive subject and very emotional on both sides, and I want to respect that,” he said.

And Dunnavant, a practicing OB-GYN who like Newman is a member of the committee, said that the purpose of her proposal was to move Virginia into a “much more appropriate position” and align Virginia with most European nations, where abortions are prohibited after 12 weeks.

“The law that we have in place today in Virginia was written in 1975, and the advances in medicine are staggering and the stage of viability has moved,” Dunnavant said. “We are outdated based on medical practices and on standards around the world. There are only seven states that have abortion in the third trimester unregulated.”

Dunnavant was the only Republican on the committee who voted against Hackworth’s proposal. She also voted against Newman’s bill after he refused to consider her amendment to the latter that would have included an exception permitting abortion after 24 weeks in the case of a fetal anomaly.

“I’d rather keep the bill as it is, for better or worse,” Newman said.

Abortion rights groups celebrated the panel’s decision to reject the proposals.

“The bills the subcommittee considered today all seek to insert politics into healthcare and inappropriately restrict Virginians’ ability to control  their own bodies,” said Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. “People in many different circumstances need access to abortion, and no one should make those personal decisions for someone else — especially not politicians.”

Markus Schmidt

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