The GOP-controlled Virginia House of Delegates Monday advanced a "fetal personhood" bill that would give legal rights to a human fertilized egg and a measure that would require women seeking abortions to first undergo trans-vaginal ultrasound tests. Delegates rejected an amendment that would have ensured contraception remains legal once the personhood bill goes into effect.
The personhood bill, sponsored by Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William), defines the word "personhood" in the Code of Virginia as beginning at the moment of fertilization. Voters in Mississippi, one of the most socially conservative states in the nation, rejected a similar measure in October because it complicated the legality of stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, abortion in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment, and certain kinds of birth control.
Marshall said he's been working on passing a bill like this in Virginia for the past 20 years and insisted that the bill would not "directly" affect contraception or abortion -- it just provides a legal framework for mothers to sue if anything happens to her unborn baby.
“The legal effect here is [if] a pregnant woman is driving in an intersection and someone runs into her, she can sue for loss of a child,” he said. “Under the current code, a mother cannot do that. [The bill] has no direct legal effect on abortion or birth control.”
But House Democrats, in a press release on Monday, expressed concerns that the bill could have farther-reaching consequences than Marshall acknowledges. House Minority Leader David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) called it "another example of misplaced priorities."
“Yet another extreme bill on a social issue emerges, and House Republicans saved the most controversial one for last,” he said. “House Democrats are focused on education, economic opportunity, and transportation while the GOP continues to push a narrow, divisive agenda.”
To mitigate Democrats' concerns, Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax) tried to attach an amendment to the bill that would declare that nothing in it could be construed to outlaw any form of legal contraception, since some kinds of birth control have the potential to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. The House voted 64 to 34 against considering the amendment.
The bill to require ultrasound passed the House 63 to 36, with one lawmaker, Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Woodstock), describing abortion as a "lifestyle convenience" during the floor debate. An external ultrasound test is unable to generate a fetus image during early pregnancy, but a trans-vaginal ultrasound can.
Personhood bills, far more restrictive than any other anti-abortion provision on the books, could directly challenge Roe v. Wade. Similar legislation is being considered in at least 12 other states, either as a ballot measure for voters or as a bill to be decided by the state legislature.
In response to the measure, Virginia senate candidate Tim Kaine (D) took the opportunity to distinguish his views on reproductive rights from those of his Republican opponent, George Allen, ahead of what is expected to be a close and important Senate race between two former governors. While Allen hasn't officially endorsed Marshall's bill, he notes on his website that he "believe[s] life begins at conception and support[s] legislation declaring the personhood of every individual life."
Allen's campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Kaine sharply criticized the personhood bill in a statement on Monday, assuring voters that as senator he would "fight for affordable and accessible contraception."
"I strongly disagree with the House of Delegates' vote to enact personhood legislation," he said in a statement. "This reckless proposal, supported by my opponents, including Bob Marshall and George Allen, could threaten access to some forms of birth control for women across Virginia. Even when given the opportunity to reaffirm their support for contraception, Marshall and Virginia House Republicans rejected a measure to create a safe harbor protecting women's access to birth control."