Va. House panel endorses controversial 'personhood' bill

Virginia Bob Marshall, R-Prince William.

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A Virginia House of Delegates committee endorsed legislation Friday stating that human life begins at conception.

The Courts of Justice Committee voted 14-4 to send Del. Bob Marshall's so-called "personhood" bill to the House floor, where it will be up for a final vote Tuesday. Similar legislation passed in the House last year but was killed by a Senate committee.

Marshall, R-Prince William, is known as one of the General Assembly's most outspoken abortion opponents. His bill would establish a framework for parents to sue someone who caused the death of their unborn child, but opponents said that the real aim is to lay the groundwork for outlawing abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court ever reverses its Roe v. Wade decision.

Anti-abortion activists are pursuing "personhood" measures in at least a dozen states. Voter referendums on such measures failed in Colorado in 2008 and 2010 and in Mississippi last November.

"The bill's purpose is to ban abortions in the commonwealth," said Katherine Greenier, head of women's rights program at the ACLU of Virginia. "This bill is not necessary to provide a cause of action for the wrongful death of a fetus."

Tarina Keene of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia called the bill "out of touch with Virginians' values," saying recent polls showed heavy opposition to the measure.

She also said recognizing a fertilized egg as a person could wreak havoc in multiple areas of the law. For example, she wondered what might happen if a parent-to-be with four frozen embryos tried to claim them as dependents for tax purposes.

"It really opens the floodgates," she said.

Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, questioned whether the bill could effectively outlaw contraception because most forms of birth control involve preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg.

But Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, accused opponents of "fear-mongering" and said the bill would not affect contraception or abortion.

"This is a well thought-out, well-crafted, constitutional piece of legislation," he said.

Rita Dunaway, a lawyer with The Rutherford Institute, said similar legislation has been on the books for more than 20 years in Missouri with none of the consequences mentioned by opponents of Marshall's bill. Abortion will continue to be governed by existing laws, she said.