Republicans imposed a 24-hour-waiting period and mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions in 2012 when they last controlled both branches of the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion.
Now that Democrats have locked down their own trifecta, party leaders have filed an array bills to roll those and other restrictions back.
“It’s a woman’s right to choose, period,” said Sen. Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who has filed legislation that would eliminate the ultrasound requirement, waiting period, requirement that women under age 18 obtain parental consent prior to a procedure and eliminate strict building-code requirements imposed on abortion clinics.
Likewise, Gov. Ralph Northam struck a defiant tone when he broached the topic in his annual state of the commonwealth address last week. “No more will legislators in Richmond — most of whom are men — be telling women what they should and should not be doing with their bodies,” he said. “It’s time to overturn these laws.”
One area where Democrats are treading lightly is late term abortions — the subject of a national fire-storm last year after Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, said during aggressive questioning during a committee hearing that her legislation would permit abortions “up to the moment of birth.” Outrage intensified a day later when Northam, a pediatric neurosurgeon, botched an attempt at explaining how doctors typically handle nonviable or severely deformed fetuses.
The election-year fracas earned Northam a mention in Trump’s State of the Union, but largely ignored the fact that doctors would not abort a pregnancy when a woman was on the brink of labor and that late-term abortions in general are both already legal in Virginia and incredibly rare — just two have been performed since 2000. Tran’s legislation would have changed the number of doctors required to sign off on such a procedure from three to one, as well as loosen other restrictions.
In either case, Democrats say they’re trying to avoid a repeat of that debate this year. Tran said she doesn’t plan to file similar legislation. Neither does Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who had carried similar legislation in past years.
“There was so much misinformation last year, and confusion, that I thought we should focus on what are the biggest barriers and let’s address those,” said McClellan, who has filed her own legislation to roll-back the 2012-era restrictions, which she and others consider medically unnecessary.
When Republicans proposed the measures in 2012, they touched off their own round of national outrage after Northam, then a state senator, observed to his colleagues that an ultrasound during the first trimester would require a transvaginal probe. Republicans, suddenly the butt of late-night jokes and fierce protests, walked back the measure to require only a less invasive abdominal ultrasound.
Advocates have unsuccessfully fought in federal court to have the regulations overturned and state health commissioners appointed by Democratic governors have delayed implementing many of the strictest building code requirements on existing abortion facilities.
Republicans are mixed on the proposals. Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a practicing OBGYN, said she believes abortion providers should be subject to the same regulatory standards as other outpatient surgical centers, saying she’s seen patients with concerning complications from abortion procedures.
But she supported rolling back other elements of the 2012 laws, including mandatory abdominal ultrasounds because in many cases the procedure does not show the pregnancy.
“It is not OK to codify standard of care, because in many cases it changes,” she said. “In this case they’ve codified the wrong procedure.”
This post has been updated to clarify Dunnavant’s position on abdominal ultrasounds.