A Virginia Late-Term Abortion Bill Is Under Attack & Here’s The Context That’s Being Left Out

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Legislators in Virginia are exploring ways to make it less complicated for women to obtain second- and third-term abortions. Introduced by Democrat Kathy Tran, the Virginia abortion bill would simplify access to late-term procedures, and would change the state's current approval process for it.

The bill has hardly gone anywhere yet, but it is already facing loud pushback from conservatives. Many anti-abortion organizations and individuals decried the bill on social media, with some critics saying that it would, in the words of the Virginia House GOP's Twitter account, allow a woman to have an abortion "up to just seconds before that precious child takes their first breath."

But the bill is more nuanced than that. According to the bill's actual language, which is available online, the legislation would alter current Virginia abortion laws so that women seeking third-term abortions would only need one doctor's approval for the procedure. It would also slightly loosen the regulations so that she could have the procedure if her physical or mental health were in danger. Separately, it would amend current laws so that women in their second term will not be required to have abortions inside hospitals, according to CBS News.

As the law stands now, a woman must receive approval from a doctor and two "consulting physicians," and the procedure is only be allowed if the woman is otherwise likely to die or "substantially and irremediably" suffer mentally or physically. This bill strikes the terms "substantially and irremediably" from the law's language.

Those changes could make getting a third trimester abortion in Virginia significantly less complicated. Requiring so many medical professionals to weigh in, in particular, can be both costly and time consuming, Dr. Bonnie Stabile, who directs George Mason University's Master of Public Policy Program and Gender and Policy (GAP) Initiative, tells Bustle.

"The requirement for three doctors to affirm medical necessity can be construed as an undue burden on a woman's access to abortion, and also undercuts a woman's autonomous decision-making capacity by suggesting that she is unfit to make such a decision on her own behalf in consultation with her personal physician," she says.

Additionally, Stabile says, "the impact of any such change would be more symbolic than material," adding that "the number of instances in which this circumstance actually occurs is likely quite rare."

But those details have evaded much of the discourse taking place on social media. In a widely circulated video, Republican state delegate Todd Gilbert is heard asking Tran about what, exactly, her proposed bill does. Offscreen, Gilbert asks his colleague how late in a pregnancy an abortion would be allowed, under her proposed legislation.

"Where it’s obvious that a woman is about to give birth, where she has physical signs that she is about to give birth — would that still be a point at which she could request an abortion, if she was so certified?" Gilbert asks, adding, "She's dilating?"

Tran responded that it "would be a decision that the doctor — the physician and the woman — would make at that point." But Gilbert cut her off, per the video, to ask her to say whether or not her bill would permit an abortion at that point.

"My bill would allow that, yes," she said.

But as pointed out by Virginia politics reporter Graham Moomaw, the state's laws already allow third-term abortions in certain circumstances. Tran's bill seeks to loosen up the regulations surrounding them.

The bill does not specifically include a time limit, which Gilbert framed in his question as though it allowed women to obtain an abortion at any point in their pregnancy if they so choose. However, such late-term abortions are rare and generally performed in extreme situations, such as when there is a severe fetal abnormality, or when a woman's health and life are seriously at risk. It is not a decision that women make because they simply feel like terminating their pregnancy — and Tran's bill would still require a doctor to deem a patient's life or health at risk in order to undergo one.

Backlash to the video from anti-abortion critics was severe, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Tran deleted her Twitter account shortly afterward. In a statement provided to the paper on Wednesday, Tran doubled down on her bill's intent, arguing that "these decisions are personal and private, and they are made in consultation with doctors who are using their best medical judgement."

She continued: "I regret that these partisan games have taken the focus away from where it should be: on the Virginian women who have asked for this bill to get politicians out of their private medical decisions."

The controversy continued on Wednesday when Democratic Gov. Bill Northam, who is also a pediatrician, weighed in on the issue while speaking on the radio station WTOP. In the interview, Northam affirmed that a highly at-risk fetus actively being birthed would be delivered, if possible. But shortly after he said that the "infant would be resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother," Republicans erupted in anger. Many construed his comments to mean that a severely at-risk fetus which was fully delivered could be left to die in a hospital instead of treated for its medical conditions.

In a statement, Northam's spokesperson Ofirah Yheskel clarified the governor's remarks:

No woman seeks a third trimester abortion except in the case of tragic or difficult circumstances, such as a nonviable pregnancy or in the event of severe fetal abnormalities, and the governor’s comments were limited to the actions physicians would take in the event that a woman in those circumstances went into labor.

News outlets have pointed out that it's unlikely that Tran's bill will move forward any time soon, given that Republicans control the state's House of Delegates. But notably, Tran's efforts are not taking place in a vacuum — New York passed a similar bill last week, and several other states are also mulling access-protecting legislation. While the bill may not progress immediately, its goals will likely be brought up again, eventually, if national trends are any indication.