Senate shelves personhood bill

The General Assembly has decided to postpone until next year consideration of a bill that would grant personhood rights to a human embryo from the moment of conception.

The Senate last week sent the measure, House Bill 1, back to a committee after Democrats and some Republicans said it could have unforeseen consequences.

Democratic officials and abortion rights groups saw the move as a victory.

“I applaud Republicans in the Senate for seeing the light on why this overreaching bill was wrong for Virginia,” said House Democratic Leader David Toscano of Charlottesville. “I hope that my Republican colleagues in the House – who passed this bill just last week – will come to agree in future sessions.”

HB 1, proposed by Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, had passed the House on a 66-32 vote on Feb. 14. The measure stated that “unborn children at every stage of development enjoy all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of the Commonwealth, subject only to the laws and constitutions of Virginia and the United States, precedents of the United States Supreme Court, and provisions to the contrary in the statutes of the Commonwealth.”

On Thursday morning, the Senate Committee on Education and Health voted 8-7 to approve the legislation. All of the Republicans on the panel voted for it; all of the Democrats voted against.

Hours later, the full Senate took up the bill. That’s when Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, proposed sending HB 1 back to the committee, putting it on hold for at least a year.

Unexpectedly, Senate Republican Majority leader Thomas Norment of Williamsburg agreed, saying that the bill’s complexities required further study. The motion to return the legislation to the committee passed by a vote of 24-14.

Eighteen Democratic senators and six Republicans voted for the motion to shelve HB 1; 14 Republicans voted against it. Two Democrats did not vote.

The bill was modeled after a 1986 Missouri law that has survived court challenges, said Rita Dunaway, an attorney for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services in the defense of religious and civil liberties.

Dunaway advocated for the bill because she said it would accomplish the long-term objective of recognizing the humanity of the unborn.

HB 1 would not supersede federal laws or the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, Dunaway said. “A bill like this would provide a legal and philosophical foundation for specific statutes restricting abortion if the legislature ever chose to pursue such measures.”

Still, many Virginians saw HB 1 as an attempt to restrict abortion rights. As many as 1,500 people gathered on the Capitol grounds last week in silent protest of HB 1 and other proposals they considered attacks on reproductive rights.

Such activism is what prompted legislators to reconsider HB 1, said Delegate Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. “Through petition, silent protest, calls and letters, voices across the commonwealth calling for an end to this attack on women’s rights were finally heard,” she said.

Dunaway called Norment’s action to shelve HB 1 “nothing more than a politically motivated trick.” She said there was no need to further investigate the implications of the bill. There was “not a single question raised in committee that was not definitively answered,” Dunaway said.

As a result of Thursday’s vote, HB 1 will be on the agenda for the Senate Education and Health Committee for the 2013 legislative session.

“I can only hope that members of the House and Senate will not forget the pushback that occurred against this legislation next year,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. “We’ll be ready for it next year.”

How they voted
Here is how the Senate voted Thursday on a motion to send HB 1 back to the Senate Education and Health Committee.
Floor: 02/23/12 Senate: Motion to recommit to committee agreed to (24-Y 14-N)
YEAS – Barker, Blevins, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Herring, Howell, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Marsh, McEachin, Miller, J.C., Miller, Y.B., Norment, Northam, Petersen, Puller, Ruff, Saslaw, Stosch, Wagner, Watkins – 24.
NAYS – Black, Carrico, Garrett, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Obenshain, Reeves, Smith, Stanley, Stuart, Vogel – 14.
NOT VOTING – Colgan, Puckett – 2.

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