Virginia lawmakers vote to repeal mandatory ultrasound, waiting period for abortion

By: - January 29, 2020 2:17 pm

House Speaker Eileen Filler Corn, D-Fairfax, presides over the chamber shortly after being sworn in on the first day of the 2020 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

New Democratic majorities in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate voted this week to roll back abortion restrictions the GOP put in place in 2012 mandating an ultra-sound and 24-hour waiting period.

“These restrictions were not designed to protect women, but rather to suppress their ability to make their own choices regarding their bodies,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who carried the legislation in the House. “This bill concerns an incredibly important decision that should be left up to a woman and her healthcare provider.”

Among the code sections to be struck is a requirement that women be offered a copy of the ultrasound image and an opportunity to listen to the fetal heartbeat. The legislation would also eliminate heavily-litigated building code restrictions (referred to by opponents as TRAP laws, for “targeted restrictions on abortion providers”) that threatened to shut down many clinics by mandating hospital-style standards including wider hallways and doorways but were never fully implemented by the state Board of Health.

The bills cleared the Senate on Wednesday and the House on Tuesday. They were unanimously opposed by Republicans, who passed the requirements when they last controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion — a status currently enjoyed by Democrats following sweeping electoral victories in November.

Two Democrats split with their caucuses to oppose the legislation, Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, in the House and Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) broke the 20-20 tie vote.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has endorsed the legislation. 

In the House of Delegates, members of the Republican caucus, who opposed a vote to repeal certain abortion restrictions, placed small signs on their desks that read “Life is Beautiful.” (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

In addition to eliminating recent restrictions, the bills would expand who can perform the procedures during the first trimester from just doctors to nurse practitioners. The House version would also allow physicians assistants, language that Democrats in the Senate agreed to strike after two Republican health care professionals in the chamber, Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, argued they weren’t qualified to handle the complications that can arise from the procedure.

The legislation does not address late term abortions — a subject of intense debate last year after a Democratic lawmaker acknowledged under questioning by a GOP leader that her bill would allow abortion “up until the moment of birth.” (Late term abortions are already legal, but last year’s bill would have changed the number of doctors required to sign off on the procedure from three to one, among other changes.)

Republicans prompted their own uproar in 2012 when they adopted the restrictions debated this week, which as initially drafted would have required a transvaginal ultrasound — something Democrats in the Senate noted during an impassioned, hour-long floor debate. 

“Yes, we were on Saturday Night Live and the Late Show,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who argued the laws were not intended to protect women but instead to “intimidate, shame and harass.”

Republicans argued the existing rules are prudent, measured steps aimed at ensuring safety while guaranteeing women time to weigh a procedure that can’t be reversed. 

“I can tell you personally there is a cost to a rash decision,” said Dunnavant, a practicing OBGYN. “I’ve said many times this is not like a regular procedure and there are different emotional components to it.”

Sen. Jenn McClellan, D-Richmond, who proposed the legislation in the chamber, countered that two major medical groups had endorsed eliminating the requirements: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Medical Society of Virginia.

“The consensus in the medical community is that they’re not medically necessary,” she said. “The consensus in our medical community is that they put barriers in the way.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.