RICHMOND, Va. – By a single Senate vote, Virginia's General Assembly on Wednesday prohibited abortion coverage from being offered in insurance policies that would be sold through a federally funded health insurance exchange in the state.
Capping a day of passionate rhetoric and dramatic delays over the emotional issue, the Senate voted 20-19 to accept Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's amendment to legislation defining how health exchanges -- forums through which people who don't qualify for Medicaid can purchase low-cost coverage -- would function.
Earlier in the day, the House, by a 55-37 vote, approved the amendment. Its real test was destined to be the Senate where Democrats and Republicans each control 20 seats.
Opponents -- including the lone Republican to oppose the amendment, Sen. John Watkins -- said McDonnell's measure was so extreme that it will not only interfere with a woman's reproductive rights decisions, it takes the unusual step of dictating to private insurers' policies what they can't cover.
Federal law for more than 35 years has prohibited the use of taxpayer funds for abortion services. But, Democrats noted, McDonnell's amendment even denies firms selling policies through the exchange the opportunity to sell separate riders to cover abortions to customers who don't use government subsidies.
"We've told insurance companies what kind of mandates you have to cover, but we've never told an insurance company that you can't cover something even if you want to cover it," an incredulous Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, a Democrat from Fairfax County, said.
Debate was visceral and sometimes explosive in both chambers.
In the House, the General Assembly's most ardent abortion opponent, Republican Del. Robert G. Marshall, provoked gasps and grimaces within the House chamber when he said the amendment didn't go far enough because it allows what he considers an overly broad exception allowing abortions when a pregnant woman's life is in peril.
Marshall said he would abstain to voice his displeasure, and a fellow anti-abortion legislator, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, sought to change Marshall's mind by arguing that McDonnell's amendment does more harm than good.
"If he truly believes this amendment would not save one life, then I certainly understand that that is a valid argument, but if he believes it will save any lives, why then would he not attempt to do that?" Gilbert asked.
"Mr. Speaker, anybody here could go out in front of an abortion clinic and blow it up and probably slow down the number of abortions for a week. I'm not willing to use any means to achieve even a good end," Marshall shot back.
In the Senate, Republican Thomas A. Garrett of Louisa rebutted the Democrats' claim that McDonnell -- a social conservative -- and the GOP were restricting private individuals from using their own money.
"We talk about private contracts, but these private contracts, by the language of the bill, are administered with public funds, therefore it's not a private transaction," he reasoned. "And we talk about this bill as if it's demeaning. It is hard for me to conceive of something more demeaning than a human life tossed into a refuse bin, a garbage can."
The amendment was identical to a provision passed two years ago as part of a law that would have governed the operation of a state-run and state-funded insurance exchange as required under the Affordable Care Act that Congress enacted in 2010.
But McDonnell decided against a state-run exchange, leaving the federal government to operate and fund the exchange in Virginia.