A committee of the Virginia Senate yesterday approved a House bill that would restore funding of abortions for poor women with a doctor's consent and after counseling.
The measure, one of the most controversial bills this session, was approved on an 8-to-5 vote, with one senator abstaining and another absent. The vote came after nearly two hours of public testimony and pointed questions from the committee that reflected arguments heard both in the House committee that considered the bill and on the floor. The bill now goes to the Senate for final passage or defeat.
Virginia's conflict over this issue and related measures mirrors a national battle that is going on in state legislatures and courts as well as the U.S. Congress.
The bill is approved by the state Senate and the governor, Virginia will become one of 14 juridictions, including the District of Columbia and Maryland, to fund abortions for women receiving Medical assistance, according to the National Abortion Roghts League. Oregon voted this week to restore such funding in restricted cases. Four other states - Illinois, New York, Pennslyvania and Idaho - fund "medically necessary" abortions, with Idaho requiring the consent of two physicians.
The bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee yesterday would allow a state-fund abortion if a physician finds that a full-term pregnancy is likely to "impair the well-being of the patient, including her mental, physical or emotional health." The woman would have to receive counseling by a physician before deciding she wants the abortion.
The legal history of the abortion issue is complex and several issues, such as the constitutionally of requiring parental consent before a minor can have an abortion, are still unresolved. Following is a summary of major court decisions and legislative actions regarding abortion.
In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in the cases of the Roe against Wade and Doe against Bolton that state laws prohibiting theraputic abortions were unconstitutional. This ruling, the pivotal case for the current controversy, in effect declared abortion to be a legal medical procedure that was a question of personal conscience.
Prior to this decision, most states had laws that permitted abortions under certain restrictions. In Virginia and Maryland, for example, abortion was permitted if the life of the mother was in danger, in cases of rape, and if it was likely that the fetus would be deformed. In D.C., the consent of two psychiatrists and a physician was required.
This ruling also said that abortions in the first three months of pregnancy could not be restricted by government regulations other than requiring that they be carried out by a licensed physician. States could regulate abortions in the second three months of pregnancy, however, and could restrict those on the final three months to cases where the life or health of the mother is threatened (Supporters of this ruling, who refer to themselves as pre-choice say that abortions in the final three months are actually deliveries).
On the question of when life begins, always a focus of antiabortion arguments against any measures, including the one passed by the Virginia Senate committee yesterday, the court said there was no agreement. Prochoice people argue that life begins only when it can be sustained outside the womb; antiabortion people say it beings at the moment of conception. This is the basis of their assertion that abortion is murder and that the rights of the unborn must be protected.
In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that parents not veto an abortion for a minor, but did not say that minors had total authority to get abortions without parental consent. This issue is still being considere in state courts in Massachusetts and Illinois, where the question of whether a minor could circumvent a state law requiring parental consent by getting a court order permitting an abortion is still being tested.
This issue is to be debated by a Virginia House subcommitte today in connection with a proposed change to the current law requiring parental consent - which has not been enforced due to its constitutional uncertainty, according to prochoice sources. The proposed change would require the consent of both parents or a court order to allow an unmarried minor to have an abortion.
In 1976 Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, eliminating funding for Medicaid abortions except for cases when life of the mother was in danger. It did not effect until last August because of a court injunction in New York. That particular case is still unresolved.
In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that states are not required to pay for nontherapeutic abortions for Medicaid patients, but did not define therapeutic.
Aslo last December, the Hyde Amendment was broadened to allow Medical abortions in cases of incest, rape if it was "promptly reported," or when two doctors certified that the mother would have severe and long-lasting physical damage if the pregnancy continued.
Today a U.S. House committee is scheduled to vote on a related abortion issue - a bill that would say that to eliminate pregnancy from insurance lisability programs would be discriminatory. An effort to amend the bill to say that abortion is not a pregnancy-related benefit will be voted on, which could have far-reaching effects on a woman's access to a abortion.
Efforts to get comment from the National Right to Life Committee on this summary were unsuccessful.