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Virginia’s new abortion law to figure in 2011 elections

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

March 1, 2011

Aided by an unnoticed parliamentary maneuver, Republican lawmakers in Virginia’s General Assembly passed one of the nation’s strictest regulatory regimens on abortion clinics. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has said he will sign the legislation. In addition to having a major impact on the availability of abortions in Virginia – there were more than 26,000 in 2009 – the new law is also likely to be a major issue in this fall’s legislative elections in the state.

The new measure empowers the Virginia Board of Health to develop regulations that could require abortion providers, currently regulated the same as doctors’ offices, to be subject to the same requirements that govern hospitals. Depending on the specific requirements devised by the state board, the new regulations could be so costly – in the millions of dollars for a number of facilities – that as many as 17 of the 21 abortion providers in the state could close.

Anti-abortion proposals generally pass the Republican House of Delegates, but the state Senate – with a 22-to-18 Democratic majority – always prevented the proposals from passing. However, the Democrats failed to notice the abortion amendment attached to another bill and let it reach the floor, where two conservative Democratic senators voted with the pro-life Republicans. Thus, in this fall’s elections, control of the closely divided state senate is likely to be a major goal of pro-life Republicans, one that will be hotly contested by the mostly pro-choice Democrats.

Enactment of the new measure “has two contrary effects politically,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The first is to excite the pro-life Republican base because the Republicans have finally delivered on a social issue.”

The second, however, is enactment of the essentially anti-abortion proposal “sent a shiver down the spine of the pro-choice and liberal community. They can see what will happen if the Senate goes Republican” in this fall’s election. “There are plenty more of these proposals waiting to be passed with a Republican senate,” notes Sabato.

Margaret Disney, a spokesperson for the Virginia Society for Human Life (VSHL), points to two such proposals: “We’d love to have fetal pain and ultra sound,” short-hand for extra-strict requirements when the fetus is 20 weeks old or older and, according to some researchers, can feel pain, and for a requirement that women who want an abortion must first view an ultra-sound of the fetus in the womb.

Virginia holds its state election this year, the primaries in August and the General Election in November. All 100 Delegates and 40 state Senators come up for election and the new abortion regulations are likely to be a major factor in many of the contests. There will be nothing significant on the statewide ballot, so local contests – in newly redistricted bailiwicks – will be the only draw, which suggests a very low turn-out. For both sides, says Sabato, “It will be all about turning out the base.” Disney says the VSHL’s political action committee’s goal this year “is to elect pro-life legislators.” Pro-choice groups can be expected to pursue the opposite goal.

While some 44 states have passed regulations on abortion clinics in the past several decades, Virginia’s new law could be the strictest, depending on the recommendations of the state’s Board of Health. Opponents contend that under the regimen, abortion-providing facilities could be required to widen halls (to accommodate two gurneys passing each other), enlarge the size of the room where the abortion procedure is performed, mandate installation of costly equipment not normally used in abortions, and even require food facilities and possibly landscaping. Proponents insist these are “worst-case scenarios,” and that the intent is not to close these facilities, but to make sure women who use them are provided a safe environment and experience. They note the new regulations will be devised by health professionals on the state board, all of whom were appointed by the previous governor, Democrat Tim Kaine, though McDonnell can eventually replace them with his own appointees.

Opponents of the new law contend that it is unconstitutional, as an infringement of women’s right to privacy as defined in the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision which legalized abortions in 1973. Planned Parenthood of Virginia has already indicated that it will challenge the new law in court, but will wait until the Board of Health has issued regulations.

The issue could also complicate national politics. McDonnell has been mentioned as a potential GOP vice-presidential nominee in 2012 and said last week that he wouldn’t seek it, but would serve if asked. McDonnell’s support for this potentially controversial measure would help him with the Republican base. However, once the national convention is over, the Republican national ticket tends to down-play the party’s pro-life stance and shift the focus to independent voters for whom the issue is less salient.



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