A House of Delegates committee today approved four measures aimed at restricting abortions, including one that would require parental consent for minors to have abortions and another that would outlaw the late-term procedure that opponents call "partial-birth" abortion.
The Courts of Justice Committee also passed measures that would remove the mental health of a mother as a consideration for late-term abortions and a proposal that would allow health care professionals to decline to prescribe birth-control pills or abortion-inducing medications if they have a conscientious objection.
The bills still must win approval on the House floor and in the Senate before they can go to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) for review, but supporters say they are increasingly confident they have a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly.
Approval of the measures comes days after the House passed a bill that would place tighter restrictions on abortion clinics, part of a push by abortion opponents in Virginia and across the country to limit access to the procedure. Leaders of the effort said today's votes add to their sense that this will be a breakthrough year in the commonwealth.
"We do believe that there has been some momentum building," said Victoria Cobb, director of legislative affairs for the Family Foundation. "I think certainly we will put several of those [bills] on the governor's desk."
Abortion opponents in Maryland say they hope to advance some restrictions under the new governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Ehrlich has said he would consider bills on the late-term procedure and parental consent, but he faces strong opposition in both chambers of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), patron of HB 1541, declined to use the term "partial-birth abortion," instead choosing to call the rarely used procedure "infanticide." Marshall defined infanticide as killing a baby whose head or body above the navel was outside a woman's body.
Marshall said using the term "infanticide" was an effort to define when birth begins so that the proposal would not be considered a regulation of abortion. "We are defining birth here," he said. "We need to do something to stop this outrage."
Since the bill does not treat the procedure as abortion, it does not allow for exceptions for the life of the mother. Failing to include such a clause has led to successful legal challenges of bans on the late-term procedure in the past, but supporters said they are confident the bill will meet any legal test.
"There is not a health exception, and there doesn't need to be one, in our opinion," said Bernard McNamee, chief counsel to Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R). "This is substantively different than an abortion."
A partial-birth bill passed both houses of the General Assembly last year, but Warner vetoed it because he said it would not pass legal muster. The Senate upheld his veto.
"Inasmuch as [the] infanticide [bill] is apparently a partial-birth ban, the governor vetoed a measure last year that did not provide adequate protections for the life and health of a mother," said Ellen Qualls, spokeswoman for Warner. "If this one does not provide those constitutional protections, it could meet a similar fate."
Qualls said Warner is "not closing the door" to a parental consent bill. A measure requiring parental consent cleared the House last year but was defeated in the Senate. Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), sponsor of the parental consent bill, pleaded for legislators to make the requirement law this year.
"If this is the last thing I ever do in the General Assembly, then my time will be a success," said Black, shaking and near tears as he presented his bill.
After the committee vote, a hopeful Black said "this is the first step. . . . This bill, if enacted and signed by the governor, will save more lives than any law that has ever been passed since 1619."
Supporters of abortion rights, who attempted to defeat each of the bills, said passage would remove protections for those needing it most -- a child afraid to tell her parents and a woman suffering from severe mental health problems, for instance.
"They're no longer chipping away" at abortion rights, said Bennet Greenberg, director of government relations at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, an abortion rights group. "They're now taking huge chunks of those rights away. It's clear to me those rights are under attack."
A Senate committee is scheduled to hear proposals Thursday that would restrict access to abortions.