Thursday, February 1, 2001

RICHMOND A bill that would require a woman to wait 24 hours between seeking and having an abortion will go to the Virginia Senate floor for the first time ever, making it likely this is the year it will become law.

A Senate committee passed the bill yesterday, and backers expect they have the votes to get it through the Senate. A similar measure exists in the House, where it has passed the last three years, and the governor is certain to sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Also yesterday, the House advanced a measure that would ease access to emergency contraception, commonly called the “morning-after pill.” The bill is up for a final vote today.

The abortion waiting-period bill, also called the “informed consent” bill, would require a clinic or hospital to tell a woman seeking an abortion the approximate age of the fetus, details of the abortion procedure and other options available to her.

The woman would be told she could ask to speak with the doctor who would perform the abortion beforehand, and that she could withdraw consent at any time. The information could be given over the phone or in person, but must be done at least 24 hours before the abortion is performed.

“To make a choice without information is to not be able to make a choice at all,” said Sen. J. Randy Forbes, Chesapeake Republican and the bill’s sponsor.

About 20 other states have adopted waiting-period laws, but Maryland and the District of Columbia have not.

The bill was drawn closely to the Pennsylvania statute that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in Pennsylvania v. Casey, backers said.

In Virginia’s Senate yesterday, testimony from both sides was very intimate.

Proponents showed a video with three women who had been through abortions and said they weren’t given any information. Two said they would probably have chosen differently if they’d stopped to think about it, while one said she just would have liked to know more.

But Karen A. Raschke, staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, called it the “women are stupid” bill because she said that’s the message it sends.

“I don’t think any of you want to send the message that women are stupid and don’t know what to do if they find themselves pregnant and don’t want to be pregnant,” she said.

She also said a 24-hour waiting period rarely turns out to be only 24 hours, since many clinics aren’t open on consecutive days or women would have to wait over the weekend. She said that could be a financial burden on women who had to travel long distances to an abortion clinic because they might show up and be told they had to wait 24 hours, forcing them to either go home and return later or get a motel room to wait the period out.

Other opponents said in states where it has been implemented, a waiting period hurts abused women the most, since they often are in danger of further abuse if their partner finds out they are seeking an abortion.

The informed-consent bill has gone to and been bottled up in the Senate Education and Health Committee the last three years, but a procedural move by the Senate leadership last week moved the bill from that committee to the Courts of Justice Committee.

The bill passed the courts committee 8-6, with all Republicans voting for it and six Democrats voting against it. Sen. John S. Edwards, a Roanoke Democrat who is seeking his party’s nomination for attorney general, wasn’t present to vote.

Preliminary counts show backers might lose two Republican votes in the full Senate, but they would probably get two Democrats’ support for the bill. Republicans have a 22-18 majority in the chamber, and Lt. Gov. John H. Hager, a potential tie-breaker, also supports the bill.

The bill passes comfortably every year in the House, and Gov. James S. Gilmore III has called for the measure in his State of the Commonwealth speech the past three years.

Four years ago, Virginia enacted a parental-notification requirement, and three years ago it passed a ban on a type of abortion commonly called partial-birth abortion. Those two restrictions, and the proposed waiting period, are the three basic restrictions the Supreme Court has said states may enact.

The notification requirement has been upheld by the courts, but the partial-birth law was struck down last year after the Supreme Court ruled against a similar law in Nebraska because it lacked an exception for the health of the mother.

The emergency contraception measure originally failed to advance on a 49-48 vote but was then reconsidered and advanced 55-41. The House still must take a final vote today, and the bill would then go to the Senate.

The bill does not make emergency contraception which is a stronger-than-usual dose of birth control pills available over the counter. Instead, it would let nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants prescribe it, and would let doctors prescribe the pills for women who aren’t their patients, as long as they had made arrangements with a pharmacist to dispense the prescription.

Opponents said the pills can act as an abortifacient in some cases, since it can prevent a fertilized egg from attaching itself to the uterine wall.

“This is a baby pesticide we’re looking at. It’s a toxic method of eliminating a child,” said Delegate Richard H. Black, Loudoun Republican.

But the bill’s supporters disputed that, arguing that in most cases, it prevents fertilization of the egg, and that access to the pills would, in fact, reduce the number of abortions.

“If there is ever a time when the pro-choice and anti-abortion people want to get together and work for a common cause, this is it,” said Delegate James H. Dillard II, Fairfax Republican, who voted for the measure.

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