Will Virginia amend the state constitution to preserve abortion rights?

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Posted at 6:10 PM, Nov 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-09 18:10:47-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- You'd be hard-pressed to find a recap story of the 2023 Virginia General Assembly elections that did not mention the role abortion played.

Virginia Democrats winning both chambers — albeit by slim margins — means they can keep the Commonwealth as the lone southern state to not roll back state abortion laws since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

At a press conference hosted by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, newly elected state lawmakers, all Democrats, said they believe voters rallied around their message of protecting abortion access.

“It literally is the central health care decision that can determine the trajectory of someone's life and that of their family's life," said State Senator-elect Lashrecse Aird (D).

Abortions are legal in the first and second trimester in Virginia, and following that time frame, only a panel of three doctors can approve one to save the mother.

Any legislative expansion of abortion access would very likely be vetoed by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin during the final two years of his term.

Some Democrats and advocates have already floated the idea of taking the right to abortion in Virginia out of the hands of legislators by enshrining the right into Virginia's Constitution.

"I'm hopeful that moving forward we can we can be constructive, and we can put these protections in the Constitution because that's where they belong. This does not belong in the legislative body." said State Senator-elect Schuyler VanValkenburg (D).

However, changing Virginia's Constitution is a drawn-out process that takes years. Here's how the provision reads:

"Any amendment or amendments to this Constitution may be proposed in the Senate or House of Delegates, and if the same shall be agreed to by a majority of the members elected to each of the two houses, such proposed amendment or amendments shall be entered on their journals, the name of each member and how he voted to be recorded, and referred to the General Assembly at its first regular session held after the next general election of members of the House of Delegates. If at such regular session or any subsequent special session of that General Assembly the proposed amendment or amendments shall be agreed to by a majority of all the members elected to each house, then it shall be the duty of the General Assembly to submit such proposed amendment or amendments to the voters qualified to vote in elections by the people, in such manner as it shall prescribe and not sooner than ninety days after final passage by the General Assembly. If a majority of those voting vote in favor of any amendment, it shall become part of the Constitution on the date prescribed by the General Assembly in submitting the amendment to the voters."

In plainer English, an amendment must pass both chambers of the General Assembly twice with a House of Delegates election between. Based on the new power structure in Richmond, Democrats would have the pass the initial resolution in 2025, and if it passed again in 2026, Virginia voters would then have the final say via referendum.

"Making it a reality so that our rights are not a political football, and we don't have to debate whether people are going to have access to safe legal abortion, you know, every single legislative session," said Jamie Lockhart, director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.

Governor Youngkin would not have a role or ability to block the amendment process, but when asked Wednesday about the role of abortion in this election, the Governor said he sees something much different in the Democrats' narrow win.

"This is a very difficult topic across Virginia and the nation," Youngkin said. “I don’t think Virginians want to be extreme in either direction.”

Youngkin and Republicans said they plan to stand up against abortion policy they see as extreme, and the Governor's veto pen stands in the way of any bills that would change state law that could lead to more abortions.

“The one thing that we know is that abortion is a really difficult topic; that there is a place to come together around a reasonable limit," Youngkin said. "I think Virginians can come together, and that's something that I continue to be committed to work on with our legislature, in order to see if we can find.”

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