By Mark Robinson
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – The General Assembly on Wednesday narrowly approved an amendment by Gov. Bob McDonnell that will prohibit certain health insurance companies in Virginia from providing coverage for women seeking an abortion.
McDonnell added the anti-abortion amendment to House Bill 1900, sponsored by Delegate Thomas Davis Rust, R-Herndon. The assembly passed the bill in February to comply with the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Under the system, Virginians who cannot afford health insurance will participate in a federally operated health insurance exchange.
McDonnell’s amendment will prohibit insurers participating in the exchange from covering abortion except in the case of rape or incest or if the mother’s life is in danger.
Legislators reconvened Wednesday to vote on the Republican governor’s recommendation and other matters. The Republican-dominated House voted 55-37, with one abstention, to approve McDonnell’s recommendation. But the vote was much closer in the Senate, which is divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
After more than an hour of deliberation, the Senate voted 20-19 to approve McDonnell’s amendment. Democratic Sens. Phillip Puckett of Tazewell and Charles Colgan of Manassas joined 18 Republicans in voting for McDonnell’s recommendation. The other 18 Democrats and Republican Sen. John Watkins of Powhatan voted against the measure. Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, abstained from the vote.
Watkins said publicly that he did not support the governor’s amendment. On the Senate floor, Watkins questioned whether the anti-abortion amendment was germane and urged the Senate to block it.
“I don’t believe adequate attention has been given to its potential impact,” Watkins said.
Democratic senators also voiced opposition to the amendment.
“This is just a further attempt to expand the assault on women’s reproductive health rights in this commonwealth,” said Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Painter. “It needs to stop.”
Sen. Mark Herring, D-Loudoun, agreed. “Women should be able to make decisions about their own health care without interference from politicians here in the state Capitol,” he said.
The governor’s amendment states:
“No qualified health insurance plan that is sold or offered for sale through an exchange established or operating in the Commonwealth shall provide coverage for abortions, regardless of whether such coverage is provided through the plan or is offered as a separate optional rider thereto, provided that such limitation shall not apply to an abortion performed (i) when the life of the mother is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, or (ii) when the pregnancy is the result of an alleged act of rape or incest.”
The General Assembly passed a similar measure in 2011 when Virginia was planning to operate a state-run exchange for health insurance coverage. But the assembly had to vote on the issue again after McDonnell opted for an exchange operated by the federal government.
Here is how the Senate voted Wednesday in concurring in the governor’s recommendation regarding House Bill 1900.
Vote: 20-Y, 19-N
Yeas – 20: Black, Blevins, Carrico, Colgan, Garrett, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Puckett, Reeves, Ruff, Smith, Stanley, Stosch, Stuart and Vogel
Nays – 19: Alexander, Barker, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Herring, Howell, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Marsh, McEachin, Miller, Northam, Petersen, Puller, Saslaw, Watkins
Not voting – 1: Wagner
In the House on Wednesday, Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, said he voted “present” on the amendment because he believes it is not strict enough to prevent abortion. Marshall called the language of the bill “pathetic.” He objected to making exceptions for victims of “an alleged act of rape or incest” or women whose lives are threatened by their pregnancy.
“It’s designed to get people off the hook,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t stop abortion … You don’t need any life-of-the-mother exceptions in the United States.”
Late Wednesday, the Virginia Society for Human Life, an anti-abortion group, praised the General Assembly for supporting McDonnell’s amendment.
“Without this amendment, starting in 2014 Virginians would have been forced to pay for all abortions on demand done in the Commonwealth through the new federal health care law. Virginia taxpayers owe a debt of gratitude to Gov. McDonnell and the General Assembly for taking this reasonable action today.” said Olivia Gans Turner, the society’s president.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.