Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a Catholic, cast the tie-breaking vote on Wednesday to pass a bill to liberalize abortion access in the commonwealth.
Senate Bill 733 received 20 votes in favor and 20 votes against on January 29. Virginia’s state Senate is composed of 21 Democrats and 19 Republicans. Fairfax, as lieutenant governor, is the Senate president and casts tie-breaking votes.
The bill, which has already passed the House and now awaits the Governor’s signature, would repeal a Virginia law mandating that only doctors can perform abortions, allowing other medical professionals, such as physicians assistants and nurse practictioners, to do abortions. The bill will also repeal a law requiring a woman to be given specific information about the abortion procedure before it takes place.
Under current commonwealth law, a woman must be given “a full, reasonable and comprehensive medical explanation of the procedure,” as well as alternatives to abortion. The woman must also be told that she can change her mind and withdraw her consent to the abortion at any time, and that she can talk to the doctor performing the abortion so they can answer questions.
The current law also requires that a woman be told how old her preborn baby is, and have an ultrasound to confirm the estimated age. The woman can be shown the ultrasound if she wished.
Under the new law, an abortionist – be it a physician, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant – still has to obtain “informed written consent of the pregnant woman” who wishes to have an abortion, but now no longer has to perform an ultrasound.
The bill also changes the medical standards for abortion facilities. Under the new bill, places which “perform five or more first trimester abortions per month” are no longer considered to hospitals “for the purpose of complying with regulations establishing minimum standards for hospitals.” This means that abortion facilities will be held to a lower safety and cleanliness standard than hospitals.
This bill is expected to be signed into law by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a known advocate for abortion.
Last year, Northam supported a bill that would have permitted a legal abortion to take place even if the woman was in active labor. On a local radio show, Northam said that he believed that if a baby happened to survive an abortion attempt, it should be left up to “the woman and her doctor” to decide whether or not to keep the child alive.
Northam’s comments sparked fierce criticism and calls for the governor’s resignation. Shortly after this radio comments, a picture from Northam’s page in a medical school yearbook emerged, showing a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe standing next to a person in blackface. Northam initially apologized for the image, then later denied it was him in the picture.
Fairfax, whose deciding vote moved the bill to Northam’s desk, has also faced controversy and calls to resign in the last year.
Amid renewed calls for Northam’s resignation over the racist photograph and speculation that Fairfax could soon be sworn in as governor, two women came forward and said that they had been sexually assaulted by the lieutenant governor. Fairfax denied both of the allegations, admitting to a one-night encounter with one of the women which he called “100% consensual.”