Virginia Republicans face uphill battle on abortion restrictions

(The Center Square) – Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and some legislative Republicans intend to push a “pain threshold” abortion restriction during the next legislative session, but one of their biggest challenges will be getting enough support in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Democrats hold a two-seat majority in the Senate, but have even stronger control over committees. The Education and Health Committee has a 9-6 Democratic majority and the Rules Committee has a 12-3 Democratic majority, both of which shot down Republican abortion restriction bills earlier this year.

During the 2022 session, the Rules Committee voted down a born-alive bill, which would have required doctors to provide life-saving care to infants who are born as the result of a botched abortion. The only Democrat on the committee to vote with Republicans on this proposal was Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax. However, Petersen has generally voted with Democrats on other abortion bills in the past.

A proposal would need to clear committees before getting a vote on the chamber’s floor, unless Republicans could find a way to introduce something as a floor amendment to a different bill that makes it to the floor.

The Senate has one Democrat who has openly called himself pro-life and could determine whether a bill gets through the chamber if it makes it to the floor: Sen. Joe Morrisey, D-Henrico. However, he has a mixed record on abortion bills, often voting with his own party, but occasionally siding with Republicans.

Morrissey told The Center Square he supports women’s rights, but also said abortion up until the point of birth is “reprehensible.” He did not directly answer questions about whether he would consider a 20-week abortion ban or a 15-week abortion ban or where he specifically draws the line, but in past statements he has said he would consider an earlier cutoff if there is evidence the fetus feels pain. Abortion is legal in the first and second trimester, which means the current cutoff is around 26 weeks.

“It should be noted that I have always supported women’s rights and this support will not end simply because of a U.S. Supreme Court case,” Morrissey said. “What I find completely reprehensible is my opponent’s support for abortion up until the point of birth. Indeed, every single woman with whom I have spoken, [believes] that abortion up until the day of delivery is absolutely abhorrent.”

Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for Youngkin, told The Center Square the governor supports finding a consensus on pro-life legislation. Lawmakers are currently working on prospective legislation to introduce in the next session.

“Virginians elected a pro-life governor and he supports finding consensus on legislation,” Porter said. “He has tapped Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, Sen. Steve Newman, Delegate Kathy Byron and Delegate Margaret Ransone to do so and prioritize protecting life when babies begin to feel pain in the womb, including a 15-week threshold.”

Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told The Center Square that a 20-week ban by itself would be virtually impossible to get through committees. She encouraged the governor to support a package that sets up a 20-week ban, but said it should be part of a holistic package that addresses needs for pregnant women and mothers. She said this should include paid leave, a way to connect women with services while they are pregnant and more funding for social programs.

Day said Democrats should support that sort of package. She said poor women should have the same opportunities as wealthier women to have children, but that many Democrats talk about equality and choice, despite telling poor women that the only choice they have is to get an abortion.

“In reality, it is the Democratic Party that should be the pro-life party,” Day said, because the party is meant to “support the vulnerable [and] those in need.”

The Center Square reached out to a spokesperson for Senate Democrats to ask whether they would consider any changes to the state’s abortion law, but did not receive a response by the time of publication. However, the caucus’s earlier comments appear to differ from Day’s recommendations.

“For decades, Republicans in Virginia and across the nation have done their best to restrict a person’s right to medical privacy when it comes to abortion and reproductive health services,” read a statement from Senate Democrats immediately after the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade. “While these efforts will no doubt be redoubled with the fall of Roe v. Wade … Senate Democrats remain strong to protect the right to choose in the Commonwealth and will not back down in the face of these incoming threats … Make no mistake — we will protect a person’s right to choose in Virginia.”

Day said Democrats for Life intends to reach out to every Senate Democrat to encourage a cooperative to potential changes in how the commonwealth handles abortion.