Virginia lawmakers pass measures easing abortion restrictions

Abortion restrictions that were enacted when Republicans controlled Virginia’s General Assembly are being undone in legislation approved by the Democrats who are now in charge.

The House on Thursday gave final passage to a bill that would roll back provisions including a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and a requirement that women seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound and counseling. The measure would also undo the requirement that abortions be provided by a physician, allowing nurse practitioners to perform them, and do away with strict building code requirements on facilities where abortions are performed.

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The Senate companion measure passed earlier in the week. The legislation now goes to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who supports it.

Abortion-rights advocacy groups praised the legislation's passage. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia called it the first-ever “proactive bill on access to safe, legal abortion” in Virginia’s history.

“When this legislation goes into effect, Virginians will no longer have to navigate an obstacle course of delays and barriers in order to access a safe and legal abortion,” said Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

The measures passed largely along party lines, with staunch opposition from Republicans and religious advocacy groups that testified against it in committee hearings.

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Republican Del. Kathy Byron said in a floor speech Thursday that the changes would lead to women being less informed about “maybe one of the most important decisions that they ever make.”

“What we're doing today is we're voting to deny women complete information on what an abortion means, its consequences, its implications, its alternatives," she said.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who sponsored that chamber's version of the bill, said the measure was doing away with medically unnecessary requirements. She said it was particularly important because women sometimes need an abortion to complete a miscarriage.

“We're requiring an ultrasound, and a woman has miscarried,” she said of one of the existing requirements.

The bills are advancing at a time when abortion-rights advocates are increasingly worried the nation's highest court could overturn or chip away at the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a nationwide right to abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled next week to hear its first major abortion case since the addition of two justices appointed by President Donald Trump.

Abortion-rights advocates have said the changes will make Virginia a “safe haven” for abortion access for women in neighboring conservative states.