RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Democrats on a Virginia Senate sub-committee recommended rejecting three Republican bills to restrict abortions in the state, with one Republican member siding with Democrats to kill two bills with more extreme restrictions.
The recommendation of the sub-committee to kill the bills will likely be upheld by the full committee when it meets next week.
Three Bills Enter, None Leave
The three bills presented to the committee outlined three divergent visions of post-Roe abortion restrictions, revealing some divisions among senate Republicans.
Under current VA law, women can freely access abortion in the first and second trimesters (up to week 26 of the pregnancy), and can receive an abortion in the third trimester if their life is endangered.
Senator Stephen Newman (R – Bedford) patroned SB 1385, a 15-week ban which he tied explicitly to a supposed “pain threshold” for fetuses. He also cast his bill as a compromise proposal, though it was ultimately much more restrictive than the bill proposed by fellow Republican Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R – Henrico).
“Clearly after the Dobbs decision, there are decisions that states can make,” he said. “This bill I see as a middle ground.”
He and the patrons of the two other abortion bills under consideration also emphasized that their bills would only criminalize abortion providers, not women who receive abortions.
“In no way does this bill criminalize a woman at all,” Newman said.
His bill won the support of the Youngkin administration, with Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James testifying in its favor during the sub-committee meeting.
But Newman’s bill drew opposition from Dunnavant after he rejected an amendment that would have added an exception until 24 weeks for cases of “severe fetal anomalies.”
Dunnavant also opposed a more extreme bill from fellow Republican Senator Travis Hackworth (R – Richlands) which would have instituted a total ban on abortions, requiring a police report be filed to allow an exception for rape and incest.
In contrast to her fellow Republicans, Dunnavant — who is herself a practicing OBGYN — centered her bill around advances in medical technology that have improved the odds of survival for babies born prematurely.
“A mother may need to not be pregnant in the third trimester,” she said. “But you can deliver that child and give that child to the NICU where there have been revolutionary advancements.”
Dunnavant’s bill would also not outlaw abortion clinics like those operated by Planned Parenthood, unlike Senator Newman’s proposal, which requires abortion be performed in hospitals.
During public comment, Dr. John Bruchalski, an OBGYN from Fairfax, claimed that there was a well-established pain threshold for unborn fetuses.
“Unborn children can and do feel pain well before 20 weeks, and certainly by 15,” he said.
But Dr. Susan Lanni, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine, said the science wasn’t clear on when, how and whether fetuses feel pain — and that current practices act as if they do not.
“We do not anesthetize fetuses and impending neonates for vaginal delivery or caesarean section,” she said. “It makes no sense to discuss pain.”
Ultimately, a 15- or 24- week ban would affect a very small fraction of those who currently receive abortions, with the vast majority occurring before 13 weeks, according to data from the CDC.
But for those who do receive abortions after 15 weeks — termed “later in pregnancy” — the Kaiser Family Foundation writes that they often do so as a result of extenuating circumstances, including trouble coming up with the money necessary, fetal anomalies revealed late in pregnancy and health risks that emerge as the pregnancy continues.
The three bills will now be considered by the full senate committee on education and health, where the sub-committees decision is likely to be upheld by the Democrat-controlled panel.