The Virginia House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would restored state fundering for abortions for indigent women when pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or when the health of the mother is threatened.
A voice vote advancing the measure to a final vote, possibly today, came after an emotional debate in which abortion proponents and foes strenuously argued for and against the morality of both the operation and whether the state should deny poor women the right to a medical procedure that richer women can affort on their own.
The State Board of Health last fall cut off all payments for abortions for women receiving Medicaid despite the opposition of the senior staff of the Health Department and the Governor's Medicare-Medicaid Advisory Board. Gov. John N. Dalton upheld that decision last month, leaving the matter up to the legislature.
About 4,000 Medicaid abortions were performed in Virginia in the year ending last June 30 at a cost of about $450,000. The amount represents about 0.02 percent of the entire state Medicaid bill of $250 million.
The bill the House was scheduled to vote on would have restored Medicaid funding for abortions without restrictions, but it was replaced on the floor by a substitute that requires doctors to certify that a woman should have the operation. Under this measure, an abortion would be allowed if the fetus is abnormal, in cases of rape and incest, or if the physical or mental health of the mother is threatened.
A motion by Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax) to have the bill rereferred to the Appropriations Committee, where it would have a good chance of being killed, failed on a 46-to-42 vote.
"The Supreme Court said a government cannot abrogate to itself that moral decision which should be left to the people," one of the bill's supporters, Del. Ray Garland (R-Roanoke), said during the floor debate. ". . . You cannot rewrite history. It's hypocisy to take sanctions against one small group (poor women) . . . and force compliance which we cannot enforce against the population as a whole."
Del. Lewis Fickett (D-Fredericksburg), opposing the bill, said, "This is a very agonizing moment for me." He said that while refusing poor women a procedure that more affluent women can obtain was discriminatory, there was a "transcendant value," that took precedence - "the right of the unborn to live."
"It is with deep regret and sadness that I urge you to reject this bill," he concluded.
Del. Alexander B. McMurtrie Jr. (D-Chesterfield), read most of a speech originally delivered by Roman Catholic Bishop Walter Sullivan before the Health, Welfare and Institutions Comittee which voted earlier this week to send the bill to Full House. He said, that Medicaid abortions would lead to "classism" because it taught the poor that the "way out of poverty is self-deustruction."
McMurtrie also said it fostered "racism" because most Medicald recipients are black and paying for abortions would cut down the black population.
The orginalbill's sponsor, Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington) said that the Supreme Court had ruled in 1973 that abortion was a legal medical procedure, and the issue was "equity."
Earlier in the day, the health committee killed two proposals relating to a constitutional amendment banning abortion. One, proposed by Callahan, asked Congress to enact such an amendment; the other, proposed by Del. Robert Thoburn (R-Fairfax), called for a Constitutional Convention to enact one.