Three attempts to restrict abortion shot down in Virginia General Assembly

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Democrat-led Senate panel rejected three different Republican attempts to restrict abortion on Thursday.

It’s the first decisive vote on abortion rights in the Virginia General Assembly since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. It means no changes are likely this year in a politically divided state government.

“We threw their extreme bans in the trash can. Look, I even brought my own trash can,” Senator Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), who chairs the Senate Education and Health Committee, said in a press conference after the votes.

Volunteers with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia packed the committee room as all three bills were swiftly rejected with no debate.

Meghann Jesneck, who said she had an abortion at age 15, traveled from Hampton for the early morning meeting.

“I just want to emphasize that having an abortion, choosing whether or not to have a family, is an incredibly personal decision,” Jesneck said. “It is no one else’s choice except for that person.”

Currently, Virginia law allows abortions through the end of the second trimester and in limited circumstances in the third trimester when several doctors approve. The commonwealth is considered a “safe haven” in the south, where several Republican-led states have passed restrictive bans on the procedure.

The most restrictive bill proposed by the GOP declared that “life begins at conception.” It would have abolished all abortions with exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger.

Another bill sought to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions, an approach that was endorsed by Governor Glenn Youngkin. 

Republican Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico), who is also an OB-GYN, was notably absent when those bills were rejected. Dunnavant, who was personally tapped by Governor Youngkin to craft abortion legislation last year, voted against both proposals in subcommittee after her attempt to amend the 15-week ban failed. 

“I would’ve supported that bill if it had exceptions for severe fetal anomalies,” Dunnvant said. 

Dunnavant introduced an alternate proposal that tried to abolish abortion during the third trimester of pregnancy, except to save the life of the mother. Currently, state law also allows abortions in the third trimester when moving forward with the pregnancy would “substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

“I’m disappointed that the Democrats wouldn’t consider my bill. I think it was a very reasonable attempt to find consensus and start building in a place where a lot of people already agree and that is that you shouldn’t have an abortion when a baby can live outside the mom,” Dunnavant said in an interview after the vote. 

Meredith Harbach, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Dunnavant’s bill is broadly consistent with federal abortion protections that existed before the Supreme Court reversed course last year. However, she said the bill appears to move up Virginia’s timeline for when abortion restrictions kick in.

“She would be bumping up the ability to restrict abortion starting at anywhere between 22 and 24 weeks, so that’s about a month to six weeks earlier than when the restrictions start to kick in right now,” Harbach said.

In a statement, Youngkin said Thursday’s vote is evidence that Democrats want abortion anytime, anywhere.

“Just days after unveiling a constitutional amendment that endorses abortion at any point during the pregnancy, including when a baby feels pain all the way up until the moment of birth, Senate Democrats solidified their extreme position this morning,” Youngkin said.

Senator Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said that’s not true. She said her constitutional amendment would enshrine the legal framework that was at the federal level before the Supreme Court’s reversal and enshrine it in the State Constitution.

“We have seen time and time again when Republicans can’t win on the facts and on the policy, they use fear and misinformation,” McClellan said.

Asked if Republicans are right to say that the proposed constitutional amendment would allow unrestricted access to abortion, Harbach said, “It’s hard to know for sure.”

“If you read it literally, it would say that the only time the state could restrict or ban abortion is when it would protect the health of the woman seeking abortion. That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Harbach said.

An election this fall could shift the balance of power in the General Assembly, which could have drastic implications for the future of abortion rights in Virginia. Every seat in the House and Senate will be up for grabs.

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