Published in partnership with The American Independent.
UPDATED, 3PM, January 17, 2013: This bill was defeated in committee this morning by an 8-7 vote.
A proposal in the Virginia General Assembly to eliminate state funding for certain abortions could force some low-income women to carry to term a fetus with a low likelihood of survival.
Virginia State Senator Tom Garrett’s (R-Lynchburg) bill would repeal a provision of Virginia law that authorizes the Board of Health to pay for abortions for women who meet Medicaid eligibility requirements after a physician certifies that he or she believes “the fetus will be born with a gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or with a gross and totally incapacitating mental deficiency.”
Opponents of Garrett’s bill, including some Senate Democrats, argue that it would unduly burden low-income women economically, physically, and emotionally.
The number of abortions at issue is relatively small.
A total of 58 applications for state-funded abortions due to gross fetal abnormality were submitted between July 1, 2009, and Jan. 3, 2013, according to Virginia Department of Health statistics provided by deputy director of Family Health Services Lauri Kalanges.
Department of Health physicians review each application. The department approved 46 of those procedures—nearly 80 percent.
Kalanges told The American Independent in a phone interview that three physicians were involved with the completion and review of each application for funding.
First, a certified Virginia physician must complete and submit an application on behalf of the woman seeking the abortion, explaining his analysis of the fetal abnormality and his evaluation of the likelihood of survival.
Once submitted, two physicians employed by the Department of Health review the application, Kalanges said. Both physicians must agree that the fetus has a low chance of survival in order for funding to be approved.
“The review is based on diagnostic tests, medical evidence and the current available medical knowledge,” Kalanges said. “So it’s really on a case-by-case basis that through the review process, we determine whether there’s a low likelihood of survival for that fetus if born.”
Kalanges said there was no specific definition of a “gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity” or “a gross and totally incapacitating mental deficiency.”
“Some of the types of anomalies, either as a single area or in combination with other anomalies, lead to the decision that the fetus has a totally incapacitating abnormality,” Kalanges said. “That would be in the area of cerebral or brain deformities, cardiac heart deformities, certain types of chromosome abnormalities or other types of congenital abnormalities.”
Depending on the type of abnormality, Kalanges said, physicians consult medical literature to determine known survival rates for each diagnosis.
Kalanges said that physicians review each case independently and make their decisions based upon “records submitted and their interpretation given the known factors related to survival of the condition or conditions.”
Va. Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said during a press conference in Richmond that Garrett’s bill represented the most offensive of numerous Republican-led efforts to restrict access to abortion in Virginia.
“You have wanted pregnancies with horrific results, when parents have to make the decision: Do I carry a child to term who may have their brain growing outside of their head, only so that when the cord is cut, that child will die?” she said.
McClellan said women approached her during the last legislative session to tell her they had unexpected abortions during planned pregnancies because of fetal abnormalities.
In a press release, Garrett said the bill would make Virginia law more consistent with the federal Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of taxpayer funds for abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment to the life of the mother.
The Hyde Amendment was first enacted by Congress in 1976. President Barack Obama agreed in 2010 to extend the principles of the Hyde Amendment to the Affordable Care Act.
The lack of coverage for fetal abnormality abortions in federal law makes Virginia’s provision even more important, McClellan said.
“If you have private health insurance and you make that decision [to have an abortion], that’s one thing,” she said. “If you’re on Medicaid or you’re a low-income person, you’re on your own.”
McClellan said she would fight efforts of anti-choice lobbyists and legislators to portray fetal abnormality abortions as issues of lifestyle convenience.
“Oftentimes [abortions] are the tragic end to a very much wanted pregnancy,” McClellan said. “Yet the legislators on the other side want to put them all into the same black and white box and legislate to the stereotype.”
Senator Garrett, through his legislative aide, declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story. The Family Foundation, Virginia’s leading anti-abortion lobbying group, also did not respond to interview requests.