RICHMOND, Va. -- As more Southern states pass new restrictions on abortion, Virginia is poised to become an outlier in the region for its relatively permissive laws, setting up the state as a destination for women seeking abortions and raising questions about providers' capacity to meet demand.
North Carolina legislature banned most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy this week when it overrode their governor’s veto of the ban on Tuesday. When the new law goes into effect July 1, 2023, women in four of Virginia’s five neighboring states cannot legally terminate most pregnancies roughly six after the pregnancy could be confirmed by cardiac activity on an ultrasound.
Abortion is banned or severely restricted in much of the South, including bans throughout pregnancy in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. In Georgia, it’s allowed only in the first six weeks. Farther west, women often travel to Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico or Colorado.
“I think what we're going to see is that the counties on the border of Virginia will rush to do what the counties in Southwest Virginia have been doing,” Victoria Cobb, President of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said. “We are very concerned that we are vulnerable to become a state where people travel to take the life of their unborn child, and communities are definitely gearing up to try to prevent that.”
Recently the Family Foundation assisted Bristol, Virginia officials in drafting amendments to the city’s zoning codes to prevent a clinic previously located across the border in Bristol, Tennessee, from moving into Virginia. That clinic was impacted by Tennessee's trigger law that enacted much stricter access to abortions immediately upon the U.S. Supreme Court's overturn of Roe v. Wade.
Challenges to the zoning ordinance amendments in Bristol, Virginia, remain ongoing.
“What these bans do is they create a ripple effect,” Rae Pickett. of Planned Parenthood Advocates, said. “It adds pressure on the health center operations in surrounding states and regions, and then it disrupts access to care for all of those people.”
Virginia currently allows abortions in the first and second trimesters.
An abortion is allowed in the third trimester only if three doctors certify the mother’s mental or physical health is at serious risk.
Pickett said few thought a restrictive abortion law could pass in North Carolina because Governor Roy Cooper is a Democrat and getting a supermajority of the legislature to override his veto would be difficult.
“What we can see is that these fights are happening in state houses across the country. That's where the fight is,” Pickett, who noted Virginia’s General Assembly election in November could be critical in determining abortion policies in the Commonwealth, said.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, pushed for a 15-week ban during this year’s legislative session, but that was defeated by the narrow Democratic majority in the state Senate.
Virginians “are going to have to work to protect our Commonwealth from being exploited by the abortion industry," Cobb said.
“I believe most abortions are the failure of a community to wrap their arms around a woman and to support her,” she added. “If community by community, we can equip women to have better support, I think we'd see a dramatic difference in our abortion rates.”
North Carolina’s new law requires patients to be seen in person by a doctor at least 72 hours prior to terminating a pregnancy, making it more difficult for patients to travel from other states in the South with even more restrictive rules. Cases of incest or rape may qualify for an exception up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. An exception for lethal fetal anomalies would be possible through 24 weeks.
Until Tuesday, North Carolina had been considered a safe space, said Dr. Erica Pettigrew, a family medicine doctor in Hillsborough. But now, "North Carolinians will be health care refugees to other states,” she said, also criticizing provisions of the law for potentially creating more paperwork, along with additional medical and licensing requirements.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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