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Virginia Democrats reject three abortion restriction bills

A person wearing a suit sits behind a desk. A placard in front reads "Sen. Dunnavant"
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) voted with Democrats on the Senate Health and Education Committee to defeat two proposals to limit abortion in Virginia. A third, proposed by Dunnavant, was also voted down.

Senate Democrats pledged to defeat any similar proposals coming from the GOP-controlled House of Delegates.

Democrats in Virginia’s Senate struck down three GOP bills Thursday that would have restricted abortion in the commonwealth.

At a press conference after the vote, Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), who leads the Senate Education and Health Committee, said any similar legislation designed to restrict abortion would meet the same fate.

“As long as Senate Democrats have our majority, the brick wall will stand strong and these extreme bills will never pass,” Lucas said.

Lucas and the committee’s Democratic majority defeated the bills, with one Republican — Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) — joining them in voting against two of the proposals. The bills were defeated with no fanfare and no debate in around 10 minutes. The legislation got full hearings in subcommittees last week.

The most restrictive bill, from Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell), would have banned all abortions except when a pregnant person’s life was in danger or when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest (up to 20 weeks of pregnancy). Legislation backed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and sponsored by Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford) would have restricted abortions beyond 15 weeks, with similar exceptions.

Dunnavant, a practicing OB-GYN, proposed a bill capping abortion beyond the point of viability, which the legislation defined as somewhere between 22-24 weeks based on the opinion of doctors. It also would have banned third-trimester abortions unless a pregnant person’s life is in danger.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Dunnavant argued the votes against her bill showed Democrats weren’t willing to consider any limitations on abortion.

“I think it was a very reasonable attempt to find consensus and start building in a place where a lot of people already agree,” she said.

Dunnavant was one of four lawmakers Youngkin tapped to draft abortion legislation after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. But she voted against the 15-week ban backed by Youngkin in a subcommittee meeting last week and again on Thursday. She told reporters Thursday she would have supported the bill “if we had exceptions for severe fetal anomalies.”

A handful of bills related to abortion and pregnancy remain active in the GOP-controlled House of Delegates. They include a proposed total ban on the procedure without exceptions, a requirement that students watch a video of an “ultrasound of a live unborn human in the uterus” and a bill that would count pregnant women as two people when using high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

The governor told anti-abortion activists in June he would “happily and gleefully” sign any legislation that “protects life” that makes it to his desk.

Senate Democrats’ press conference featured a trash can prop — a symbol of where the GOP bills are headed, lawmakers said. Several lawmakers spoke of Virginia as a beacon of reproductive freedom in the South.

They’ve proposed their own legislation, including an amendmentto the Virginia Constitution that “prohibits the Commonwealth from penalizing, prosecuting, or otherwise taking adverse action against an individual for exercising the individual's right to reproductive freedom.” The amendment needs to pass both chambers of the General Assembly two years in a row before it goes to voters for a final vote.

Republican Speaker of the House Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said in a statement last week that the amendment “would remove all limits on elective abortion.”

But one of the measure’s sponsors, Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said Thursday it would codify the protections that had been in place at the federal level before the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson.

“What was illegal before Dobbs would be illegal now,” McClellan said. She said doctors and women, not lawmakers, should be the ones making decisions about late-stage pregnancies.

“These decisions belong in the hands of medical providers, not the General Assembly,” McClellan said.

This story was powered by the People's Agenda.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.