In a series of key votes Thursday, Virginia Senate Democrats defeated several bills that would have restricted abortion access in the state, including a proposed 15-week ban with exceptions that was a priority for Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
They are the first decisive legislative votes in Virginia since the Supreme Court's decision last year overturning Roe v. Wade. The votes mean that barring an extraordinary procedural move, such restrictions are unlikely to be enacted this year in Virginia, which currently has some of the South's most permissive abortion laws.
“The truth is, as long as Senate Democrats have our majority, the brick wall will stand strong and these extreme bills will never pass,” Sen. L. Louise Lucas said in a news conference after the hearing.
Several similar measures are still alive in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates but have not yet begun to advance. Anything that clears the House is likely to also be defeated in the Senate.
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Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert said earlier this year that given Virginia’s divided government, he didn't expect major progress on abortion this year.
Youngkin’s spokeswoman, Macaulay Porter, said Senate Democrats had “solidified their extreme position" and were acting against the will of Virginians who want “a reasonable compromise" on the issue.
Virginia law currently allows abortion during the first and second trimesters. The procedure may be performed during the third trimester only if multiple physicians certify that continuing the pregnancy is likely to “substantially and irremediably” impair the mental or physical health of the woman or result in her death.
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On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Education and Health, which Lucas chairs, voted the three measures down on a party-line basis and without debate after a subcommittee had previously heard testimony and recommended that they be defeated.
The Youngkin-backed measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Newman, would have banned abortions after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life or physical well-being of the woman. Violations by any physician would result in a class four felony, punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Newman called the proposal a carefully crafted compromise “that supports mothers” and offers “commonsense protection for the unborn.” He said the measure would not affect medical care in cases of miscarriage, stillbirth and ectopic pregnancies.
“In no way does this bill criminalize a woman at all," he said in presenting it earlier this month.
The committee also defeated a less restrictive measure from Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who is an OB-GYN. Her bill would have added new limits on third-trimester abortions, allowing them only in cases where the woman's life is at risk.
It would have allowed abortions through the second trimester before viability, defined as either 24 weeks or 22 weeks, if three physicians agree.
Dunnavant argued that medical advances since current Virginia law was written have moved the date of viability earlier in a pregnancy.
“When a child can live outside of the womb, there’s absolutely no reason to abort that child in order to protect the mother,” she said.
Her bill was voted down 9-6.
Dunnavant, a member of the committee, was not present for the in-person vote, which drew criticism from Democrats. Dunnavant said she was simply late for the meeting and noted her vote was recorded later.
The third bill defeated was from Republican Sen. Travis Hackworth. It would have banned nearly all abortions, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the woman, and made performing an “unlawful abortion” a class four felony.
“All three of the dangerous anti-abortion proposals before this committee represented grave threats to Virginians’ health and rights, and we are thrilled to now celebrate their defeat,” Jamie Lockhart, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said in a statement.
The outcome was not surprising. Senate Democrats had promised since last year's Roe decision to defeat any effort to curtail abortion access.
But the election of Democratic Sen. Aaron Rouse in a special election this month has given their caucus more breathing room. Rouse flipped a seat previously held by a Republican, adding one more vote to Democrats' narrow control of the chamber.
One Democratic senator, Joe Morrissey, has previously indicated a willingness to support additional abortion restrictions, even through the use of an unusual floor procedure that before Rouse's victory potentially could have allowed the Republican lieutenant governor to cast a tie-breaking vote.
in 2020, Democrats, at the time in full control of state government, expanded abortion access and eased certain clinic restrictions, pledging to make the state a “safe haven” in the South.
This year they are attempting to advance a proposal that would enshrine a “fundamental right to reproductive freedom” in the state Constitution.
Republicans argue the amendment would remove all limits on elective abortion. Its sponsor, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, has said that's not the case and its intent is to codify the legal framework that existed at the federal level before the Supreme Court's decision last year.
That proposal will almost certainly die if it reaches the House.
The future of Virginia's abortion laws could be determined this fall, when every legislative seat will be on the ballot.