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Senate kills “personhood” bill in surprise move

By Chelyen Davis


The controversial “personhood” bill that defined life as beginning at conception is dead for the year, after a surprising move on the Senate floor to send it back to committee.

The bill had been passed Thursday morning by the Senate Education and Health Committee.

But in the full Senate, Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, proposed sending it back to committee and carrying it over for the year. Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, agreed, saying that he listened to the morning’s debate and felt “there were more complexities and nuances and legal arguments” than he had expected.

Sen. Mark Obenshain objected, but the bill was sent back to committee on a 24-16 vote.

Del. Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, sponsored the bill, saying it would provide a legal cause of action for wrongful death for a fetus. It’s modeled after a law in Missouri, he said.

“It expresses an intention to protect the life and health of an unborn child to the fullest extent possible under current law,” said Rita Dunaway, a lawyer with the Rutherford Institute.

She said the bill is “a policy judgment favoring childbirth over abortions.”

Supporters of the bill said it would recognize a fetus as a person, not as “blocks of tissue,” in the words of Fredericksburg anti-abortion activist Terry Beatley.

Beatley, who worked to defeat former Sen. Edd Houck in the 17th District in last November’s election, said voters “want this kind of quintessentially pro-family legislation.”

But opponents raised concerns that the bill could inadvertently harm infertility treatments, and several doctors testified that it could create a nightmare for doctors and their malpractice insurance, if a fetus is now a “person” who could sue a doctor.

“It doesn’t take a lawyer to see the language is full of loopholes,” said Whitney Anderson, a Salem woman who testified that she fears the bill would stop her efforts to have a baby using in-vitro fertilization. “The Virginia legislature is not my physician.”

The committee also passed a bill repealing the requirement that girls get vaccinated against HPV and an amended version of the bill requiring women to get ultrasounds before abortions.

The ultrasound bill was the House version; the Senate bill was amended on Wednesday after Gov. Bob McDonnell said he wanted it to clarify that women wouldn’t have to undergo invasive transvaginal ultrasounds, but only abdominal ones.

The House version was given the same amendments by the committee before it passed.

Supporters say it updates Virginia’s informed-consent laws by using up-to-date technology to give a woman as much information as possible.

“The informed consent is providing information to women before they make a decision that could alter the life of another human being,” said bill sponsor Del. Kathy Byron, R-Lynchburg. “Many women regret that they didn’t have all the information.”

Opponents say it’s a thinly veiled effort to guilt women out of having abortions.

“No one in this room should kid themselves. This bill has one purpose,” said Saslaw. “The purpose is to try to make it as difficult as possible for a woman to get an abortion.”

The amendments did not win the bill the support of Democrats, who said this would be the only instance in the state code where the state dictated to doctors what kind of health procedures to provide.

“This bill is still an abomination, not as bad as it was when it was [state] mandated rape, but still an abomination,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. “We are racing to the Dark Ages for ideological reasons.”

During the hearings, particularly on the personhood bill, committee chairman Sen. Steve Martin threatened several times to have police remove opponents of the bill who were making outbursts during testimony. Afterward, outside the committee room, police did have to remove several protesters who were shouting “Shame!” at Marshall as he talked to reporters.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245