RICHMOND — The Virginia House of Delegates approved legislation Tuesday that would define life as beginning at conception, setting up a potential clash in the state Senate and another high-stakes battle over a measure that has been beaten back elsewhere in the country in recent years.
Lawmakers tackled several contentious social issues on Tuesday, in addition to passing perhaps the most high-profile bill thus far this session. Delegate Robert G. Marshall's "personhood" measure easily cleared the House on a 66-32 vote.
Mr. Marshall, Prince William Republican, said opponents have long searched for a "bogeyman in the closet on this legislation."
"They have failed," he said.
Opponents say that the bill moves a step closer to outlawing abortion outright, should the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision be overturned and that it would make some forms of birth control illegal.
Delegate Vivian E. Watts, Fairfax Democrat, proposed an amendment Monday to ensure that contraception would remain legal, but it was rejected.
Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said the bill has potentially far-reaching consequences.
"With the word 'person' appearing more than 25,000 times in the Virginia code, single-minded legislators are about to run this commonwealth off a cliff as well as eradicating women's health and rights," she said.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where it likely will be sent to the Education and Health Committee. That committee last year killed the same bill, when Democrats enjoyed a 10-5 advantage. Republicans now hold an 8-7 edge there, and all eyes will be on Sen. Harry B. Blevins, Virginia Beach Republican, who sometimes bucks his party on abortion issues.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican and a Catholic, said Tuesday that he believes life begins at conception but that he had not looked at the bill in detail.
"Anytime you get into these areas, there are legal and constitutional issues," he told WNIS Radio in Norfolk. "If the bill passes, we'll have a full review done by the attorney general's office to see whether or not it's appropriate. But ... obviously my personal views versus what the proper legal and constitutional views are is something we need to sort out to make sure we're enacting good law."
Mississippi voters rejected a "personhood" ballot initiative last fall, and Colorado voters did the same in 2008 and 2010.
The debate over the measure erupted soon after the White House backed off a mandate that employers, including religious institutions, cover birth control and other reproductive items in their health care plans amid outcry from religious leaders across the country.
Reproductive rights have been a particularly hot-button issue in Virginia this year, after Republicans won an effective majority of the state Senate in November to control the governor's mansion and both chambers of the General Assembly.
The House of Delegates on Tuesday also approved a mandate that women undergo invasive ultrasound imaging before having an abortion, advancing another major item on the Republicans' pro-life agenda. The Senate has passed its own version of the bill after quashing it last year.
Delegate Charniele L. Herring, Alexandria Democrat, called such a requirement "the ultimate government intrusion."
"We are talking about a vaginal probe," she said. "We are talking about inside a woman's body."
But Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah Republican, said those on the other side of the issue never talk about the notion of invasiveness to the unborn.
"In the vast majority of these cases, these are matters of lifestyle convenience," he said, a comment for which he was pilloried by Democrats. He later said he regretted making the remark.
In the state Senate, lawmakers on Tuesday approved a contentious measure that would require drug testing for welfare recipients. The bill would required an initial screening, with a follow-up test if there was reason to believe a person was using illegal drugs. Applicants who refuse a test or test positive could lose benefits for one year. The Senate deadlocked 20-20, with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, breaking the tie.
The bill's patron, Sen. Stephen H. Martin, Chesterfield Republican, said it's meant to ensure that state tax dollars are sufficiently protected, that they go to children and families and that the bill is not intended to target any single group. The bill contains a clause that would ensure it would not take effect without an accompanying amendment in the state budget. The proposal would cost the state about $2.8 million over the next two years.
"There are some people in this chamber that need to find another website other than ALEC's," quipped Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax, referring to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national conservative legislative group that prepares and drafts many bills for statehouses across the country.
"I would hope that we would not want to set ourselves up to be ridiculed by Jon Stewart, or Colbert or Leno or Letterman," he said, referring to the hosts of several television comedy shows.
"The Daily Show" recently mocked Florida's version of the law, which a federal judge blocked last fall.
The House Appropriations Committee put off consideration of that chamber's version of the bill to next year, so the prospects for Mr. Martin's bill in the House of Delegates is uncertain.
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