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RICHMOND – Within an hour of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June to send abortion back to the states, Gov. Glenn Youngkin tapped four Republican lawmakers – including two from Bedford County – to draft legislation that would “chart the most successful path forward” for the commonwealth on this issue.
For anti-abortion activists in Virginia, it was a watershed moment. But when Senate Democrats last month effectively killed a Youngkin-backed proposal by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, seeking to ban most abortions after 15 weeks, House Republicans decided to simply not take up a companion bill sponsored by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford County, allowing it to die in committee – a quiet surrender in one of the most contentious political battles during an election year when all 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot.
“We had no way forward with this bill in the Senate,” Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, the House Majority leader, said of Byron’s measure. “We thought we might be able to compromise on the 15 weeks, but after Democrats summarily rejected it, there was no use. We’ve got a lot of things that we have to do, and that one is not going anywhere,” Kilgore told Cardinal News. Byron declined to comment for this story.
But Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said the refusal of House Republicans to consider legislation seeking to restrict access to abortion that had already been defeated in the Senate is likely a political rather than practical calculation.
“Elected officials in both parties have often passed bills they know would never go anywhere in the other chamber simply because they want to make a stand. But voting on a divisive issue like abortion just isn’t a useful strategy for Republicans running for reelection while trying to keep their narrow majority in the House,” Farnsworth said.
Republicans have often benefited from talking about abortion when it was legal nationally under Roe – because it energized the activists, Farnsworth said. “But the Supreme Court decision has really energized the activists on the other side, and drawing further attention to this issue will not be helpful to a Republican majority in the House of Delegates.”
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, said that Kilgore’s excuse for not taking up Byron’s bill “rings hollow,” especially after the House had already sent “plenty of bills” to the Senate earlier in the session that Republicans knew had no path to success there.
“The real answer is given that it’s already failed in the Senate, they don’t want to have their members have to pick up a politically difficult vote on it,” Simon said.
In order to get House Republicans on the record, Simon last week filed a rules change to force a floor vote on a proposed constitutional amendment protecting access to abortion in Virginia – an undertaking that would require several steps in order to become law. The General Assembly must first approve it in two different years with an election for the House of Delegates in between, before it is placed on a ballot for a voter referendum.
Senate Joint Resolution 255, sponsored by state Sen. and Rep.-elect Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, passed by a 21-18 party-line vote in the Senate earlier this month, but the measure was rejected by a House Courts of Justice subcommittee on Friday – which under normal circumstances would have been the end of it.
But Simon’s proposed rules change is an attempt at getting McClellan’s resolution discharged from the committee and moved to the House floor for a vote. Under state law, a rules change has to be read for five consecutive days on the floor before it can be voted on, which, in this case, is Thursday – just two days before the General Assembly is set to adjourn.
Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, a member of the subcommittee that rejected McClellan’s proposal, said that he was proud of voting against it, and that he would vote the same way if it came to the floor.
“I counted it an honor to cast my vote on Friday against adding a ‘right to an abortion’ through 40 weeks into Virginia’s Constitution. If and when these bills come before me for a vote on the floor, I will always vote to protect life,” Williams said, referring to Simon’s attempt to get the resolution to the floor.
A “yes” vote on the rules change would allow for a vote on McClellan’s resolution on the same day. While that is unlikely to happen, the vote on the rules change would put on the record the names of Republican delegates opposing the proposed constitutional amendment – a legislative defeat, yet a political win for Democrats mounting a challenge against Republican incumbents this year.
“That’s why we are introducing this rules change with its specific wording, because for Republicans it’s about having as few people as possible actually having to go on the record and expose themselves to the voters with their views on abortion,” Simon said.
Well aware of the political realities of a divided legislature where Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the House and Democrats recently picked up an additional seat in the Senate, House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, at the beginning of this year’s legislative session was cautious to not raise the hopes of anti-abortion advocates beyond keeping Virginia’s status quo intact.
“I would be very surprised if anything of substance comes out of this General Assembly on abortion,” Gilbert told reporters in January, calling the proposed amendment seeking to enshrine the right to abortion in the state Constitution “a fairly extreme proposal,” that “will be treated as such.”
Senate Democrats, on the other hand, vowed to fight all Republican attempts at limiting access to abortion, which the Youngkin administration made a legislative priority after the Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade.
“Republicans have made it clear that their first priority this session is to ban abortion and roll back our rights,” Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said at a news conference in January, adding that Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Youngkin want to pass “a flurry of abortion bans or restrictions” during the session. “I am here to say, not on our watch. Senate Democrats are committed to protecting abortion rights in Virginia,” Locke said.
Democrats made good on their promise when they not only defeated Newman’s 15-weeks bill, but also rejected a proposal by Dunnavant that would have limited abortions to “during the second trimester” and before viability, and a measure sponsored by Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, that 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.
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 the mental or physical health of the woman.”
House Republicans waited to see how legislation limiting access to abortion fared in the Senate before deciding to not take up Byron’s 15-week bill. And the most far-reaching anti-abortion measure in the House, which sought to declare that life begins at conception and that would have banned abortion altogether, was also left in committee. The bill’s sponsor, Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story.
At the March for Life rally in Richmond where Youngkin joined hundreds of anti-abortion activists earlier this month, the governor voiced his frustration with the lack of success of legislation seeking to limit access to the procedure during this year’s legislative session.
“I’m first of all incredibly disappointed in the Senate Democrats, Virginians elected a pro-life governor,” Youngkin told reporters.
“And the one thing I do know is Virginians want fewer abortions, not more abortions. And they seem to completely reject that concept when there’s a vast majority of Virginians that do want to see us come together on this topic, and yet they refuse to come together and all they want to do is press forward with legislation to change our constitution or to make abortion on demand anytime, anywhere,” Youngkin said, adding that Democrats are “out of touch with Virginians.”
Equally frustrated with the legislature’s inaction after the reversal of Roe v. Wade, Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, also directed her blame at Democrats for their refusal to compromise.
“Virginia’s Democratic majority in the state Senate is far more extreme on abortion than the people who elected them. When they insist on abortion for any reason at any point in the pregnancy, even up and until the moment of birth, and won’t pass a bill demanding care be given for a baby born alive as the result of a failed abortion, there’s little the House of Delegates or governor can do,” Cobb said.
If the Senate won’t ensure abortion is safe and women are given all the information they deserve when moving forward with an abortion, it’s apparent “that the 60 percent of Virginians who want to see abortion limited to 15 weeks and below aren’t going to succeed,” Cobb added, referring to a poll from January conducted by WPA Intelligence for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and the Virginia Family Foundation.
However, another recent poll by the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University showed that 43% of Virginians would prefer to keep state abortion laws unchanged, compared to 29% who would prefer less restrictive laws and 23% who want more restrictive laws on abortion.
Jamie Lockhart, director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said that “any doubts about the power of abortion as a political issue should have been put to bed by the 2022 election results” and the recent victory of Democrat Aaron Rouse, who defeated Republican Kevin Adams for the state Senate seat previously held by Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, who was elected to Congress.
“The success of Senate Democrats in defeating several attempts to restrict abortion access reflected the will of Virginians,” but Democrats “also stood up for the majority of Virginians who want to see abortion rights protected” when they advanced McClellan’s constitutional amendment, Lockhart said.
“While we were relieved to see no new restrictions on reproductive healthcare get to our anti-abortion governor’s desk, we know that this is a temporary victory. It now all comes down to our November election when all 140 legislative seats are on the ballot.”
Farnsworth, the political scientist, said that politically speaking, Democrats have benefited more from the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade than Republicans.
“Given that, it makes sense for Democrats to put this issue front and center if they can,” he said. “What’s happening in Virginia is part of a national trend. All pro-life Republicans have scrubbed their websites and removed references to pro-life politics in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.”
The only way Youngkin will get his 15-weeks abortion ban is if Republicans get control of both chambers of the legislature next year, Farnsworth said.