Republican senator breaks with GOP to oppose 15-week abortion bill in Virginia

By: - January 20, 2023 11:58 am

Protesters outside the state Capitol in Richmond hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it would overturn abortion protections established under Roe v. Wade. (Kate Masters / Virginia Mercury)

Despite backers characterizing Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposal to largely ban abortions after 15 weeks in Virginia as “a consensus” position, a Senate panel Friday rejected it, with one Republican joining unanimous Democratic opposition. 

“I wish I could vote for this bill,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a practicing OB-GYN who proposed an amendment to the administration bill that would have allowed exceptions up to 24 weeks for fetuses with severe abnormalities. “But without that exception, I’m going to have to vote” against it. 

The Friday morning votes on three bills that would have restricted to varying degrees Virginia’s current abortion laws were not binding: The Democrat-dominated Senate Health Professions Subcommittee only has the power to recommend legislative positions to the larger Health and Education Committee. But they signal little appetite among Democrats to brook any change to the state’s abortion laws, which allow the procedure through the first and second trimesters with few restrictions and permit it in the third if three doctors decide continuing the pregnancy would pose a severe risk to the mother.

Dunnavant called that law “extreme,” arguing Virginia is out of step with laws across the U.S. and Europe as well as medical science on fetal age of viability. Under her Senate Bill 1483, abortion would remain legal up to “viability,” defined as 24 weeks or “at least 22” in the estimation of three doctors. Dunnavant’s bill would also require abortions be performed only in hospitals, mirroring the current law on the second and third trimesters.

Abortion would also be allowed if the pregnancy was nonviable and going forward with it “would substantially and irremediably impair the physical health of the woman.”

From start to finish, 2023 will be a big year for abortion policy in Virginia

“The public opinion is in favor of not having abortion in the third trimester,”  Dunnavant said. 

The two other Republican bills up for consideration Friday would go further. Sen. Steve Newman’s Senate Bill 1385 — the bill being backed by the Youngkin administration — would prohibit abortion after 15 weeks unless the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest or would result in the death of the mother “or substantially and irreversibly impair” her “bodily functions,” not including “psychological or emotional conditions.” 

“We think we have what’s a carefully crafted bill that also supports mothers,” said Newman, who called the proposal a “middle ground” that provides “common-sense protection for the unborn.” 

Sen. Travis Hackworth’s Senate Bill 1284, which he described as “a life at conception bill,” offered the most restrictive option, banning all abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk or prior to 20 weeks if an official police report has been filed alleging rape or incest occurred. 

“When Roe v. Wade was overturned, I knew this was the bill I had to put in,” he said. Pointing to unanimous support last year for legislation to impose stricter regulations on a controversial beagle breeding facility in Cumberland County that has since been shut down, he told the Senate panel, “I hope we can be as passionate in saving the lives of the unborn children as we were for the beagles last year.” 

Witnesses turned out to argue both for and against the three measures, with supporters focusing on fetal pain and opponents contending the proposals would interfere with the patient-doctor relationship. 

Several women pointed to their own experiences as instructive. One woman who identified herself as Molly said she had considered abortion but was glad she decided to continue with the pregnancy.

“When I took my pregnancy test, I could never have imagined all the wonderful support I’ve gotten,” she said. 

Jessica Gertz, a Richmond doctor, told the Senate panel she had undergone an abortion at 21 weeks after finding out her fetus had severe abnormalities that could have left it unable to breathe or without a heartbeat after delivery. 

“Make no mistake, the bans proposed today are aimed at people exactly like me,” she said. 

Lawmakers on the subcommittee had little discussion on the three measures before voting 6-3 to recommend that Hackworth’s and Newman’s bills be rejected by the larger committee and 5-4 to recommend rejection of Dunnavant’s. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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