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Democrats start effort to loosen abortion laws in Virginia

State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) speaks at a news conference Wednesday.
State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) speaks at a news conference Wednesday. (Patricia Sullivan/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats on Wednesday began to dismantle abortion restrictions erected by Republicans over the past decade, pushing an omnibus bill to the House floor on a 12-to-9 party-line vote.

The bill would expand the categories of health professionals who can perform abortions, remove requirements for ultrasounds and waiting periods and eliminate rules that made some clinics ineligible to perform the procedure.

Having advanced gun-control bills and passed the Equal Rights Amendment in the past week, Democrats turned their attention to abortion on the 47th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized the procedure nationwide.

With control of the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers for the first time in 26 years, Democratic lawmakers expect to be able to roll back numerous abortion restrictions, including a requirement that clinics performing more than a few abortions per month meet hospital-level standards for their buildings.

“We know this is just one step in unraveling decades of anti-woman legislation,” state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) said at a morning news conference held by the Virginia Pro-Choice Coalition. “If there was ever a time to respect a woman’s autonomy, that time is now. ”

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Under the House legislation and companion bills in the Senate, advanced practice medical professionals, such as nurse practitioners and certified nurse midwives, would be able to perform first-trimester abortions.

The legislation “will remove political interference between a woman and her doctor,” said Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-Fairfax), the chief co-sponsor of one of the Senate bills. “We are going to say goodbye to treating abortion providers differently from other health-care providers.”

The legislation would also require all health insurance plans to cover the costs of services, drugs, devices and procedures related to reproductive health.

No longer would women have to review what abortion rights activists call biased materials, decide whether to listen to the fetus’s heartbeat or view an ultrasound image before the procedure. The requirement for an ultrasound and a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can get an abortion would be eliminated.

“The bottom line here is once a woman decides to have an abortion, it should be safe, it should be affordable, it should be free of punishment or judgment,” Boysko said.

She said she was optimistic Democrats will be able to pass the bills this year, because “women in Virginia are demanding it.”

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said passing state-based abortion protections is especially important because an increasing number of other states are tightening restrictions.

“Due to the new conservative makeup of the Supreme Court, we can no longer rely on the court to protect our own rights and freedoms,” she said. “If Roe is overturned, we need to be a safe haven in Virginia, because West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina are preparing to outlaw abortion.”

The hearing before the House Courts of Justice Committee was jammed beyond capacity, with most in the crowd appearing to be abortion rights supporters, although nearly as many opponents testified as supporters.

“I find this bill to be deceptive,” said Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, an antiabortion group. “It suggests that women . . . cannot understand the warnings we are given. We are not children, and we can make our own decisions. Twenty-four hours is not too long to wait.”

Republicans on the committee who oppose abortion acknowledged that they did not have the votes to stop the bill. They said the legislation would remove requirements that women be informed about the risks and impact of abortion procedures, an argument that proponents rejected.

Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation, said the bill does not reflect the will of many Americans, citing new polling that shows large portions of the country supporting some restrictions on abortion, even as a majority of Americans say it should be legal in all or most cases.

“Unfortunately, the new majority of the General Assembly was bought and paid for by the $1 billion abortion industry, and it is bent on ensuring that profits increase for Planned Parenthood at the expense of women,” she said in a statement.

A Quinnipiac University poll in 2018 reported that 24 percent of Virginians said abortion should be legal in all cases and 40 percent said it should be legal in most cases.

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