A Republican-dominated Senate committee advanced a House bill Thursday that would eliminate state funding for abortions for low-income women after testimony from supporters and opponents of the bill left legislators and spectators in tears.
Del. Mark Cole's legislation conforming Virginia law to match federal policy that bans federal Medicaid funds for abortions was approved on a party-line 8-7 Senate Education and Health Committee vote. It was then detoured to the Senate Finance Committee for funding considerations.
It's among several conservative Republican pro-life bills that were pent up in a Senate that Democrats had controlled the past four years and that moderate Republicans held for years prior.
Cole, R-Spotsylvania, dismissed Democratic criticism that his bill would force the state's poorest women to give birth to mortally deformed fetuses with no chance of survival beyond a few hours or even minutes after delivery.
"Why should the most vulnerable women in Virginia be forced to carry a doomed pregnancy to term?" Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, angrily asked Cole.
Cole is backed by advocates from anti-abortion and religious groups including the Virginia Roman Catholic Diocese. He contends that it's unjust to force people with strong religious or moral objections to the procedure to pay taxes that underwrite publicly funded abortions.
"We're not going to force the taxpayers, many of them who think it's immoral ... to pay for that abortion," Cole said. His bill, like current federal policy, would allow public funds in Virginia to pay for abortions only in cases of rape, incest or pregnancies that imperil a woman's life.
Democratic Sen. Ralph Northam, a physician, said the bill would deny poor women the ability to terminate pregnancies in cases of "gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency" yet force them to bear staggering costs of caring for special needs children.
Pro-lifers would say that bearing "staggering costs" and inconvenience and even heartbreak are no justification for ending a human life. Many are also concerned that allowing loopholes for things like "mental deficiencies" inevitably lead to the abortions of otherwise viable children. If such women want to have an abortion, they should pay for it themselves, say pro-lifers.
In a concession to Northam's point, the committee amended the bill to place critically disabled children born to indigent women who are denied state-funded abortions atop a long waiting list for Medicaid waivers, or public aid that helps disabled people live near home instead of a distant, long-state institution.
Now, the Finance Committee will look at the costs of the bill with its new critical-care amendment and decide whether to include it in its version of the new two-year state budget due by Sunday.
The most riveting moments of the emotional meeting came from firsthand witness accounts.
Joe Bartling of Oakton brought his six adopted children, all blind and born overseas, some with additional disabilities, into the meeting and told of how some had been left to die in their native lands because of their afflictions.
"Each has their own story. One was abandoned in a hospital after a premature delivery at 28 weeks," Bartling said. He suggested that just such children could be saved by eliminating public abortion funding in Virginia. "One was left in a garbage can in a park in Calcutta, India, at 11 months old, screaming her little heart out. She was rescued by a policeman who took her to an orphanage."
The most vivid example of the other argument came from Christie Brooks of Stafford.
In wrenching and tearful detail, Brooks told the committee of her decision in 2003 not to complete her pregnancy after doctors determined the lungs of her fetus were so deformed that it would have suffocated at birth.
"My biggest fear in life was to die of suffocation," Brooks said. "But I was wrong. My biggest fear was having to watch my own child die from suffocation before my very eyes while I stood there helpless."
"We thought that the best thing we could do for our baby and for our family was to let her go ...," Brooks said.
As both witnesses spoke, the cavernous meeting room was hushed except for sniffles of a few people quietly weeping. On the dais, some of the 15 senators dabbed away tears.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.