Conservatives activists are lobbying state legislators who return to the Capitol Wednesday to reject an anti-abortion amendment proposed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), saying the language of the amendment does not go far enough.
McDonnell’s amendment would be added to a bill that starts the process of creating a health insurance exchange for the underinsured, as required by the new federal health care law. It would prohibit any insurance plan offered as part of the exchange from including coverage for abortions, except in instances of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.
“We appreciate that our governor believes this amendment is pro-life. However, closer examination reveals that this type of language ultimately perpetuates abortion,” said Jim Sedlak, a vice president at the American Life League. “As fellow Catholics and pro-lifers, we cannot support legislation that bargains innocent lives today against untold innocent lives in the future.”
American Life League sent out an email to thousands of supporters late Tuesday asking them to contact their legislators to vote against the bill . Others groups are calling lawmakers directly.
The General Assembly will spend Wednesday debating McDonnell’s amendments to 134 bills that lawmakers approved during their legislative session that ended in February--including the state’s two-year, $78 billion budget,. They will also try to override at least one of McDonnell’s four vetoes.
In total, McDonnell amended 133 bills, including the one on abortion, and submitted 86 amendments to the budget, adding $43.8 million in spending but offsetting that with $49.9 million in savings.
McDonnell significantly altered a bill to require businesses to provide insurance coverage for children with autism, added nearly $28 million to the budget to help shore up the Virginia Retirement System and eliminated taxpayer funding for public broadcasting.
The governor vetoed four bills. Legislators plan to try to override McDonnell’s veto of a bill that would raise awards in medical malpractice lawsuits.
The governor also vetoed a measure requiring public middle and elementary schools to offer 150 minutes of physical education a week, calling it an unfunded mandate on localities. Legislators do not have enough votes to override that veto.
Two of McDonnell’s other vetoes were of bills involving fines and penalties for environmental violations. One would increase civil penalties that could be assessed by the director of the Department of Environmental Quality, and the other would allow the State Water Control Board to impose a fine for failing to report drawing more than a million gallons of water a month for irrigation. The fate of those vetoes is unclear.
McDonnell told reporters at a news conference Tuesday that he amended the health exchange bill with the anti-abortion language to be consistent with a budget amendment passed last year. That amendment limited state funding for abortions to those performed in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. Nothing in state law had previously banned Medicaid-funded abortions in instances when the health of the mother was in jeopardy.
McDonnell, a Catholic who has long opposed abortion, had been lobbied by social conservatives since taking office last year to restrict abortion funding. He argued that his proposal last year would bring Virginia into line with federal law on the issue, restated by an executive order signed by President Obama.
“That’s consistent with the Hyde Amendment in federal language,’’ McDonnell said. “That’s where that language comes from. Those are already the recognized exceptions in federal law and those are consistent with what we did last year.”
Critics, including Steve Waters, vice president of government affairs for the Virginia Christian Alliance, said the governor’s amendment was “well-intended” but did not go far enough. “I’m concerned that the amendment as is, will allow non-life threatening health exceptions to be used under the mother’s life exception for abortions in the health-care exchange of Virginia,’’ Waters said. “In the end, a simple veto of the entire health care exchange would be in the best interest and protection of all unborn children.”
Some activists also are criticizing the Family Foundation, a conservative statewide organization, which supports the amendment and praised the governor for his actions. “I call on [the Family Foundation] to reverse their misguided support for this bill and the governor’s amendment to the bill, and to stand with unborn humans, and the thousands of pro-life Virginians [the Family Foundation] purports to represent,” said Tim Boyer, vice chairman of Fifth Congressional District Republican Committee.
Victoria Cobb, the Family Foundation’s president, did not return a phone call for comment.
A majority of legislators must vote to accept the amendment for it to become part of a new law. A majority of the GOP-led House of Delegates has already expressed support for limiting abortion coverage in the state’s health-care exchange. But Del. Robert Marshall, (R-Prince William), one of the most conservative members of the House, said in an interview, that he planned to vote against the amendment.
Democrats, who hold a narrow majority in the state senate, will likely fight against the amendment. But two Democrats in the chamber generally vote for abortion restrictions. If both voted to accept the amendment, the chamber would be split 20 to 20, and the tie-breaking vote would fall to Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who opposes abortion.
The same vote count resulted in the passage this year of a bill, signed into law by McDonnell, that requires new regulations for abortion clinics.
Under the new federal health-care law, states were given the option of creating their own exchanges or using ones operated by the federal government. The bill approved by the General Assembly stated Virginia’s intent to create its own exchange and directed the State Corporation Commission to start the work of figuring out how to run it. Anti-abortion opponents across the country have been working to get the new health care exchanges to exclude abortion coverage and similar measures are pending in a number of states.
McDonnell’s proposal also would prohibit insurance companies from selling optional riders that cover abortion for those who decide to pay for it.
“Many other states have done in their own exchange law,’’ McDonnell said. “We set these exchanges in the furtherance of the federal health-care mandate. Until it’s stricken I’m assuming we have to be ready to go July , 2014, so I’m going to set up the provisions in the least expensive, least bureaucratic, least intrusive way for the people of Virginia.’’
Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates criticized McDonnell for limiting the instances in which abortion would be covered in plans offered as part of health exchanges to rape, incest and life of the mother. Though they strongly oppose the amendment altogether, they said that if the legislature adopts the amendment, it should expand the instances when insurance coverage is allowed to include cases of fetal abnormality and or when the health of the mother is threatened.
They cited cases like Christie Brooks, a Chesterfield resident who spoke at a morning news conference about ending a pregnancy eight years ago after her unborn child was diagnosed with a severe birth defect.
In an interview later, Brooks said she was a stay-at-home mother of one when doctors discovered in an ultrasound that her unborn daughter had a hole in her diaphragm. Doctors said that if she carried the baby to term, the baby would likely be born without lungs and suffocate at birth.
Brooks and her husband decided instead to induce labor early, ending the pregnancy. Her insurance plan covered 80 percent of the costs of the procedure but she said she calculated the procedure would have cost her about $15,000 without insurance.
“It was the most horrible decision I’ve ever had to make,” Brooks said. She said legislators shouldn’t “get involved with these situations. They shouldn’t be deciding who should be covered and who shouldn’t be.”