While many Virginia voters were mourning the death of music legend Whitney Houston, Virginia lawmakers took a step toward outlawing abortion on Tuesday by approving “personhood” legislation that grants individual rights to an embryo from the moment of conception.
The Republican-controlled House of Delegates voted 66-32 in favor of defining the word “person” under state law to include unborn children “from the moment of conception until birth at every stage of biological development.”
The measure now heads to the Senate, which is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, but with Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling holding the tie-breaking vote.
Republican Delegate Bob Marshall, an abortion opponent who introduced the legislation, said the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States would not have been rendered if Texas state law had regarded the unborn as a person “in the full sense.”
“So this is a first step, a necessary step, but it’s not sufficient to directly challenge Roe,” Marshall said.
Virginia’s approach differs from failed attempts to define a fertilized egg as a legal person in Colorado in 2008 and 2010 and in Mississippi in 2011.
Virginia’s effort avoids involving a constitutional amendment like those states, instead seeking changes throughout the legal code, said Elizabeth Nash, public policy associate at the Washington-based Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health issues.
But she said the intent is the same, with the measure ultimately aimed at banning abortion, contraception and infertility treatment.
“Should this bill become law, it could have a far-reaching impact on women’s access to health care,” Nash said. “No state, as yet, has adopted anything like this.”
Ted Miller, a spokesman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said state Republicans pushing the Virginia measure had hoodwinked voters after campaigning on the economy and jobs ahead of last fall’s general election, when the Republican Party gained seats in the General Assembly.
“That agenda is out of touch with the values and priorities of Virginians, as well as Americans across the country,” Miller said.
The House also passed a second anti-abortion measure on Tuesday requiring women to view, or receive a printed copy of, an ultrasound fetal image prior to an abortion. That legislation was approved in a 63-36 vote, sending it to the Senate.
Democrats argued that with the ultrasound bill, the legislature is intruding into something that should be between women and their doctors. They say, the measure will effectively make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy or even allow women to use contraception that prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg.
“The way that this bill is written is so broad that we’re one step closer if we pass this to overruling Roe v. Wade and having a challenge,” said Del. Charniele L. Herring, D-Alexandria. “It has implications of the right to privacy and on birth control. So let us not fool ourselves — this is opening the door and it’s very serious business.”
“People on the other side of the issue never talk about the issue of the invasiveness to the unborn,” said Republican Del. C. Todd Gilbert. “In the vast majority of these cases, these are matters of lifestyle convenience.”