RICHMOND, Va. — With a newly empowered Democratic majority at the Virginia General Assembly, abortion-rights advocates say the state has a chance to roll back decades of restrictions and become a “safe haven” for women in neighboring conservative states.
Pro-choice groups laid out their legislative priorities this week, emphasizing a measure to undo Republican-backed laws including a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, as well a requirement that women seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound and counseling. A Senate committee passed that bill on Thursday morning, a day after a House committee advanced that chamber’s version.
“These laws have been about shaming women, stigmatizing abortion, shutting off access, discouraging doctors from providing this care. And we say, we’ve had enough, the voters in Virginia have had enough, and now we’re going to act on it,” Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said at a press conference Wednesday.
The bills, which are part of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s legislative agenda, would also roll back the requirement that an abortion be provided by a physician, allowing nurse practitioners and physician assistants to perform them, and undo strict building code requirements on facilities where abortions are performed.
Pro-choice groups say those restrictions injected politics into a decision that should be made by a woman and her doctor and made obtaining an abortion overly burdensome. Abortion opponents argued the laws protect pregnant women’s health and safety and are prudent given the gravity of the decision to obtain an abortion.
“There is no other procedure we deal with that ends the life of another person,” said Republican Sen. Stephen Newman, who opposed the bill.
The bills are advancing at a time when pro-choice advocates are increasingly worried the nation’s highest court could overturn or chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a nationwide right to abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled in March to hear its first major abortion case since the addition of two justices appointed by President Donald Trump.
“If ever there is a time to protect a woman’s bodily autonomy, that time is now,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, the sponsor of the Senate bill, who discussed her personal experiences during her pregnancies while advocating for the measure.
Keene said if “the worst-case scenario happens,” Virginia needs to be “a safe haven” for women in bordering states that are moving to ban abortion outright the moment Roe is overturned.
The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, rates Virginia’s current laws as “hostile.”
Data from the Virginia Department of Health show the number of facilities providing abortions has fallen from 20 in 2012, the first year in which the department began licensing the facilities, to 14 this year. The facilities are all located in populated areas, and the one furthest west is in Roanoke, according to the department.
Rachel Scruggs, a 25-year-old from Manassas, said Virginia’s current laws were a “demeaning” stumbling block when she sought an abortion after finding out she was pregnant with a partner who she said was emotionally and verbally abusive.
“Having an abortion was the best decision for my family, and I’ve never once regretted that decision,” said Scruggs, who was already a mother to a son with a developmental disability. “But being forced to go through a medically unnecessary ultrasound, mandated biased counseling and unfortunately to come back at another time due to the 24-hour waiting period was demeaning to me and a huge burden for my family.”
Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN, said Thursday she did not object to the provision removing the ultrasound requirement. But she called the 24-hour waiting period an “incredibly prudent” intervention.
Dunnavant described what she called the “painful” experience of counseling patients who acted quickly to have an abortion because they were facing pressure to do so, only to later regret their decision.
There is no harm in giving a woman a day to consider the decision, she said.
So far, abortion-rights advocates haven’t made loosening restrictions on late-term abortions a priority.
Debate over such a bill last year erupted into all-out political warfare after a video went viral of Democratic Del. Kathy Tran acknowledging that her legislation would allow abortions up until moments before birth.
Northam’s attempts to defend the legislation in a radio interview led to accusations from prominent Republicans that he supports infanticide.
“They learned their lesson last year,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation.
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