By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007
RICHMOND -- Abortion rights advocates are gearing up to fight more than a dozen bills before the General Assembly this year, including a measure that would outlaw nearly all abortions in Virginia should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade.
The debate over abortion is a yearly ritual for the Republican-controlled General Assembly, but a pending Supreme Court decision on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and this fall's legislative races could heighten the discussion this year.
"I have no doubt if the Supreme Court overturns Roe that Virginia would be one of the states that makes it illegal to have an abortion," said Ann O'Hanlon, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
Many Supreme Court observers have said the court is one or two votes from reversing the 1973 decision that established a woman's right to an abortion.
Abortion has been a tumultuous political issue in Virginia, where polls show that about 40 percent of the electorate identify themselves as born-again Christians. The state is home to Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network as well as Jerry Falwell Ministries, both of which speak out against abortion.
A Washington Post poll taken during the 2005 governor's race found that 61 percent of Virginia residents think abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 38 percent said they want to outlaw the practice.
A bill by Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) causes abortion-rights supporters the greatest concern. The bill proposes that Virginia revert to pre-1973 abortion laws if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Under those laws, abortion would be illegal except if the life of the woman or fetus is endangered.
"The right-to-life folks have not seen their concern addressed in years, so this gives them hope there is still some interest in this issue," Marshall said. He added that abortion opponents are engaged in a long-term struggle to take "a couple of steps" each year to reduce abortions.
"It is our belief a reasonable Supreme Court will reverse most, if not all, of the Roe decisions, and any legislation that brings Virginia in line with that decision we would support," said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation, a socially conservative group. The foundation is advocating changes to the informed-consent law so abortion clinics would be required to perform an ultrasound before performing an abortion.
In February, the South Dakota legislature set the stage for a direct challenge to Roe v. Wad e when it voted to make it a felony for doctors to perform abortions except to save the life of the woman. Voters overturned the law in a statewide referendum in November.
In Virginia, abortion foes have been more restrained, largely focusing on ways to limit access to abortion slowly. Last year, the House of Delegates approved a plan that would require clinics that perform abortions to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgery centers, but the measure died in a Senate committee.
The bill has been reintroduced this year. "Veterinary clinics are regulated to a higher degree than abortion clinics, and to me, abortion is an invasive procedure and ought to be regulated at least to the same degree," said Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), chairman of the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee.
Abortion rights supporters counter that the regulations are not needed because there have been few instances in which health or sanitary conditions have been an issue in one of the state's abortion clinics.
Other proposals under consideration this year include bills that would stiffen penalties for injuring a fetus as well as measures that require women to be given more information about a fetus before an abortion. The General Assembly will also consider a measure to require minors to get parental permission before obtaining birth control and one that would require a doctor to use anesthesia when performing an abortion on a fetus after 20 or more weeks.
Hamilton said he is not sure whether any abortion-related bills would pass the House this year but doubts that there will be much enthusiasm for taking up Marshall's plan for a total ban.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has said he opposes abortion personally but would veto any bill that outlaws abortion. A different political landscape might present itself next year, however, when the Senate committee that has blocked most restrictions on abortion might have a new chairman.
Even if some of the abortion bills pass the House this year, Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), chairman of the Senate Education and Health Committee, said they would face a hostile reaction in his committee.
"It's absolutely outrageous stuff that is just totally out of the mainstream," Potts said. "They just don't get it. Women by the thousands are deserting the Republican Party."
Some of Potts's Republican colleagues say he's the one out of the mainstream because he's blocking restrictions that a majority of senators support. Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax) refers to the Education and Health Committee as the "committee of death."
But Potts, a Republican maverick who angered many party leaders in 2005 when he launched an independent bid for governor, might not be around next year to block abortion-related bills: He said he is considering retiring. If a new chairman takes over and allows antiabortion legislation to reach the full Senate, Potts said, "it has a very good chance to pass."