RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and Republican lawmakers hope to pass an abortion ban in Virginia this year, a plan that faces long odds in a Democratic-controlled state Senate but one that still has a path.
With a divided state government, Democrats and Republicans recognize the uphill battle any such proposal is expected to meet once the 2023 General Assembly session begins on Jan. 11.
“I would be very surprised if anything of substance comes out of this General Assembly on that issue,” Republican House Speaker Todd Gilbert (Shenandoah) said about abortion during a Monday virtual press gaggle.
Women’s reproductive rights were expected to be a top issue for state lawmakers upon their return to Richmond for the 2023 session in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June striking down the constitutional right to an abortion.
That same day, Youngkin announced he had tapped four Republican state lawmakers to “chart the most successful path” to bring forward legislation this year, including a 15-week ban proposal. Democrats have made enshrining the right to have an abortion in the state constitution a priority.
Here’s what to know before the start of the legislative session:
What is Virginia’s abortion law
Virginia allows abortions through the second trimester of pregnancy — or about 26 weeks — and after the second trimester only when three doctors conclude “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”
The governor’s plan
Gov. Youngkin’s office said he would seek a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The governor said before taking office that he supports setting a limit with exceptions for rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger.
While he asked four Republican state lawmakers — Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, Senator Steve Newman, Delegate Kathy Byron and Delegate Margaret Ransone — to find a consensus on legislation, including a 15-week proposal, the governor said he would sign any bill that “protects life.”
In a tweet, state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), president pro tempore of the Virginia Senate and chair of the Senate Education and Health Committee, where an abortion ban proposal would have to go through, wrote that she’s going to “need a fire extinguisher because this bill [Youngkin’s 15-week proposal] is going into my trash can AND getting lit on fire.”
Multiple requests to interview Sen. Dunnavant (R-Henrico), a practicing OB-GYN, since November have been denied.
Other proposals for 2023
Some Virginia Republicans have filed their own measures on abortion, including a long-shot bill to repeal the laws on the books and ban the procedure altogether.
Legislation put forward by Del. John McGuire (R-Goochland) seeks to ban public funds from being given to abortion providers, a proposal Jamie Lockhart, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia’s executive director, said will have a major impact if enacted because it would prevent them from providing other health care services.
How Republicans could get a bill passed
Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the House of Delegates, but Democrats currently control the state Senate 21-18. This means Democrats have a majority in each Senate committee and can block each Republican bill.
Republicans could try to pass an abortion ban by amending a bill or including language in the state budget for a proposal that sets a floor vote in the Virginia Senate, where state Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) has signaled support for a ban and Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears breaks ties.
In an interview, Sen. Morrissey told 8News he wouldn’t commit to a stance ahead of the 2023 session and would keep an “open mind” when considering proposals.
To accomplish this, Republican Kevin Adams would have to win the seat previously held by Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-Va.) in a Jan. 10 special election against Democrat Aaron Rouse.
If Rouse wins, Democrats would hold a 22-18 majority and be able to stop any legislative maneuvers Republicans could implement.
But Democrats could lose another seat if state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) wins the Feb. 21 special congressional election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Rep. Donald McEachin, a likely scenario considering the district’s makeup.
What advocates say about the abortion fight
Advocacy groups, both anti-abortion and abortion-rights organizations, have highlighted their work ahead of the legislative session. These groups have also taken steps to bring more focus to the Jan. 10 special election for the 7th state Senate District seat.
“There are a lot of states who started out with bans around 15 weeks or 20 weeks, and now abortion is completely banned in those states,” Lockhart told 8News. “And let’s be clear, a ban is a ban, plain and simple.”
Caitlyn Connors, the southern regional director for the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America advocacy group, said the organization is working to increase voter turnout for the special election. But even if Rouse wins, Connors told 8News, the group will “fight” to ensure proposals such as Youngkin’s move forward.
“We recognize how critical it is, this election, but either way, come January 10, once we know how that election has come about and the next day once session starts, we’re going to be as aggressive as possible in passing this legislation,” Connors said. “We will work with any members who are receptive to the message that we should be protecting life.”
While abortion restrictions are unlikely to make it into law, there are broader implications for the state legislature because of the General Assembly elections later this year.
In November 2023, all 140 seats in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates — under newly drawn districts — will be up for grabs.
The 2023 General Assembly session begins at noon Wednesday. With the legislative session coming on an odd-numbered year, it is set to last 30 days. But similar to other 30-day sessions, it is likely to be extended to 46 days.