As the 2019 legislative session continues, Republicans and Democrats are laying out sharply different visions for the future of abortion in the Commonwealth, both of which hinge on the outcome of the General Assembly elections in November.
Last week, Virginia Democrats, led by Governor Ralph Northam, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, and Attorney General Mark Herring joined fellow lawmakers to throw their weight behind two pieces of legislation expanding abortion in Virginia, including lifting restrictions on late term abortions in the third trimester, as well as codifying a “fundamental right” to abortion in the Code of Virginia, which would allow the same.
Across the aisle, Republicans under House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) have vowed to oppose those measures, and are introducing some of their own aimed at ending taxpayer funding of abortion in Virginia.
Delegate Scott Garrett (R-Lynchburg) filed a budget amendment last week which would block taxpayer funding to certain entities, including Planned Parenthood, to the extent allowable under federal law.
Garrett, who describes himself as strongly pro-life, graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in medicine and has practiced as a general surgeon since 1989.
Current federal law, known as the Hyde Amendment, already prohibits federal taxpayer funding for abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. While the Amendment is not permanent, lawmakers have renewed it every year since 1976, though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently indicated that Democrats may try and repeal it, a position incorporated into the DNC’s party platform in 2016.
If successful, Garrett’s budget amendment would prohibit state taxpayer dollars from being given to abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood.
This measure, if passed, would enter into effect this year. However, like the Hyde Amendment, it would need to be renewed with each budget.
A longer-term approach, proposed by Delegate Kathy Byron (R-Lynchburg) as an amendment to Virginia’s constitution, would prohibit taxpayer funding of abortion in perpetuity, containing an exception only to save the life of the mother.
Introduced as HJ715, Byron’s measure would begin the multi-year process of amending the constitution, which requires a resolution to first pass the House of Delegates and the state Senate, then pass again in another year, following an intervening election in the House. Following two passages in two sessions, the proposed amendment would then be submitted to voters for ratification on the ballot.
Unlike Garrett’s budget amendment, Byron’s constitutional amendment would not take effect immediately, even if passed this session.
A proposed constitutional amendment would not be subject to a veto by Governor Northam, who strongly supports abortion rights, including late term procedures in the third trimester.
If successful, this one-two legislative strategy would immediately halt taxpayer funding for abortion, while establishing a constitutional prohibition on legislators who may wish to fund it in the future.
Virginia Democrats have made expanding abortion, including late term abortion, a focus of their campaign in this November’s elections, rolling out a legislative agenda with strong backing from Planned Parenthood and NARAL.
The Repeal Act, introduced as HB2491 by Delegate Kathy Tran (D-Springfield), would repeal restrictions on third trimester abortions, allow abortionists to self-certify the necessity of the procedures, eliminate informed consent requirements, repeal health and safety standards for abortion clinics, allow late term abortions to be performed in outpatient clinics, waive ultrasound requirements, and eliminate the 24 hour waiting period for abortions in Virginia.
The Reproductive Freedom Act, introduced by Delegate Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) as HB2369 in the House, and by Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon) as SB1637 in the Senate, would establish a “fundamental right” to abortion in the Code of Virginia, prohibiting the Commonwealth from enacting restrictions on abortions, including late term procedures in the third trimester of pregnancy.
Democratic leaders said the success or failure of those measures would depend on election results this fall.
“So when can’t change peoples minds, we need to change seats,” said Governor Northam, following last week’s press conference in which he backed the two pieces of legislation.
“Please be on notice that when we come back for our next General Assembly session, it will be a very different outcome, because we will have more allies in the House and the Senate,” added Lt. Governor Fairfax.
“We need a pro-choice majority in the General Assembly,” said Attorney General Herring.
If Democrats succeed in winning majorities in the state House and Senate, those measures could become law next year. Additionally, the election of a pro-abortion Democratic majority would spell almost certain defeat for Byron’s constitutional amendment, which must pass the General Assembly again after this fall’s elections.
While any repeal of abortion restrictions is unlikely to pass the GOP-led House and Senate this year, and any anti-abortion bill likely to be vetoed by Governor Northam, there is one thing which observers say is certain: the outcome of November’s elections will determine the future of abortion in the Commonwealth.
If Republicans hold the majority, Byron’s constitutional amendment will likely be headed to the voters.
However, if Republicans lose it, Northam has promised the Repeal Act will become law.