Politics & Policy

Virginia Legislature Moves to Liberalize Abortion Laws

Signs at the March for Life rally in Washington, D.C., 2017 (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
The Democratic takeover of the state’s general assembly will have consequences.

Exactly one year ago, Virginia’s General Assembly made the news after Democratic representative Kathy Tran introduced a bill to remove state restrictions on abortion in the last three months of pregnancy. Though all of its provisions were plenty extreme, the bill’s text wasn’t what drew attention — it was Tran’s comments about the legislation during a hearing.

Here’s part of the exchange between Tran and Republican representative Todd Gilbert, who was majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates at the time:

Gilbert: So how late in the third trimester could a physician perform an abortion if he indicated it would impair the mental health of the woman?

Tran: Or physical health.

Gilbert: Okay. I’m talking about mental health.

Tran: I mean, through the third trimester. The third trimester goes all the way up to 40 weeks.

Gilbert: So to the end of the third trimester?

Tran: Yes. I don’t think we have a limit in the bill.

Gilbert: So where it’s obvious that a woman is about to give birth, she has physical signs that she’s about give birth, would that still be a point at which she could still request an abortion if she was so certified? [Pause] She’s dilating?

Tran: Mr. Chairman, you know, that would be a decision that the doctor, the physician, and the woman would make.

Gilbert: I understand that. I’m asking if your bill allows that.

Tran: My bill would allow that, yes.

Though the irate response from pro-lifers prompted Tran to put a more palatable spin on what she had said, her initial description of the legislation was in fact correct: It would have undone restrictions on abortion after fetal viability while adding no limitations of any kind. If a woman were to obtain a “mental health” exception to regulations on abortion in the last trimester, there is no reason to believe that Tran’s bill would have stopped her from having that abortion performed while she was in labor.

Because the GOP had a narrow hold on both chambers of the Virginia legislature at the time, Tran’s legislation failed to pass. But after Democrats won a number of key victories in last year’s state elections, Republicans no longer hold a majority in either house, and pro-abortion legislators are poised to take advantage.

Though not as extreme as what Tran proposed, a collection of Democratic bills in both the state house and the senate would loosen existing regulations on abortion. One would permit non-physicians, including physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, and midwives, to perform abortions. Another would remove the parental-consent requirement for minors seeking an abortion and the requirement that women seeking an abortion obtain an ultrasound first.

The legislation also would eliminate provisions governing informed consent, so that the person performing the abortion no longer would have to give women “a full, reasonable and comprehensible medical explanation of the nature, benefits, and risks of and alternatives” to abortion. Neither would women be told that they could withdraw their consent at any point prior to the procedure.

Under current Virginia law, women must be offered a chance to speak in advance with the physician performing the abortion, must receive a statement of the probable gestational age of the fetus, and must be offered a chance to review materials about the science of unborn human life, about agencies that offer alternatives to abortion, and about medical-assistance benefits that could help them obtain prenatal care. The bills under consideration would remove those provisions entirely.

At a press conference last week, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia said her organization was backing the legislation in the hopes that Virginia would be a “safe haven” if Roe v. Wade were overturned.

But passing this legislation would signal that Virginia intends to become far more than a “safe haven” to preserve the status quo laid out in Roe, which, as NARAL’s staff surely knows, is no longer the case law governing abortion policy anyway. It would put Virginia on par with a handful of Democratic states working hard to strip away even the most reasonable regulations on abortion — treating a procedure that ends a human life as a social good rather than as a last resort undertaken only after careful consideration.