What’s Next for Abortion Rights in Virginia? (Updated)

Democratic lawmakers in Virginia aren't done protecting and expanding abortion rights.

[Photo: Virginia Senator Jennifer McClellan pauses during an interview.]
"In order to codify Roe v. Wade into state law, we will also need to remove abortion out of the criminal code and start treating it like health care rather than a crime," said Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan. 2019 Commemoration / YouTube

UPDATE, April 13, 2020, 11:20 a.m.: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Friday signed the Reproductive Health Protection Act. The law takes effect July 1, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

The Virginia legislature, under Democratic control for the first time since the early 1990s, rolled back years of anti-choice legislation last week when an omnibus pro-choice bill passed both the house and state senate.

The legislation eliminated a forced 24-hour waiting period and ultrasound requirement; ended inaccurate counseling for abortion care patients; and removed targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, making more clinics eligible to provide abortion care.

Pro-choice legislation failed to gain traction in the Virginia legislature last year, and a 2018 legal challenge to the restrictions was unsuccessful.

The number of abortion clinics in Virginia has dwindled since state Republican lawmakers began imposing anti-choice restrictions almost a decade ago. There were 20 clinics in the state before Republicans’ medically unnecessary regulations took effect in 2012; there are now 14 clinics.

Rewire.News spoke to state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who sponsored the omnibus legislation in the state senate, via email about what might come next for protecting and expanding reproductive rights in Virginia. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Rewire.News: What does the repeal of the state’s TRAP laws mean for abortion patients in Virginia? What will be the tangible effect?
Jennifer McClellan: Targeted restrictions against abortion providers, also known as TRAP laws, were not designed to benefit women’s health. They were designed to shut down women’s clinics and therefore prevent a woman from accessing safe, legal abortion care.
TRAP laws have directly led to the closure of reproductive health facilities in Virginia, and as a result, have forced women to travel hundreds of miles for reproductive care. I firmly believe that politics shouldn’t be getting in the way of women’s health. TRAP laws serve no medical benefit to patients but instead reduce the number of abortion providers, limit access to training and education programs for potential providers, increase wait times, and establish mandatory delays for procedures.
When these TRAP laws are repealed, Virginia women will be able to more easily access the full range of reproductive services. By overturning these politically motivated, medically unnecessary restrictions, the General Assembly will increase access to the full range of reproductive health-care services, which will especially benefit underserved areas of Virginia.
Rewire.News: Is there anything Virginia Democrats can do to ensure Republicans can’t simply reinstitute these anti-choice laws when they have the legislative majorities again?

JM: The Reproductive Health Protection Act is a huge step forward to remove politically motivated laws that stand between a woman and her doctor. This bill reflects the will of the clear majority of Virginians who trust and support a woman’s right to make her own personal reproductive health-care decisions—free from political interference.

A recent Public Policy Polling poll from January 2020 reflects that sentiment and reveals that 79 percent of Virginians support safe, legal abortion care and do not want politicians interfering in a woman’s ability to make this personal health-care decision. That being said, it’s going to be hard for anti-choice legislators to gain a majority with a Commonwealth that is overwhelmingly supportive of reproductive freedom and without the benefit of gerrymandered districts.

We’re also not finished. I will continue fighting for more legislation that secures a future in Virginia where a woman’s ability to make her own reproductive health-care decisions is protected for generations to come.

Rewire.News: Would you support proactive pro-choice legislation, such as a bill codifying Roe into state law?
JM: Yes, we should codify Roe v. Wade into state law. Women’s reproductive rights have been under grave threat by the Trump administration, and we know that the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court is poised to make major decisions on abortion as early as this June when it hears June Medical Services LLC v. Gee. And Virginians are acutely aware that the threats to their reproductive freedom are real and Roe’s days could be numbered.
In order to codify Roe v. Wade into state law, we will also need to remove abortion out of the criminal code and start treating it like health care rather than a crime. We need to act on the state level to secure a future that safeguards access to abortion care and upholds these fundamental rights for Virginia women now and for generations to come.