RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In a politically divided General Assembly, Lt. Governor Winsome Earle-Sears could be the tie-breaking vote on abortion policies.
Sears sat down with Virginia Capitol Bureau Reporter Jackie DeFusco to discuss her views on Tuesday. She expressed support for a ban on most abortion after 15 weeks but was less clear about other issues.
Now that Roe v. Wade has been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, abortion rights will be decided by each state. Access in Virginia will not be immediately impacted by the ruling but that could change down the road if Republicans get their way.
“I believe the baby in the womb wants to live. Now we have to make sure that we take care of the life and the health of the mother and, of course, rape and incest. But at the same time, I thought, this is excellent. We get an opportunity to talk about this some more,” Sears said.
New restrictions are expected to face an uphill battle in the immediate future. Republicans narrowly control the House of Delegates 52-48, and Democrats hold a slim 21-19 majority in the state Senate. However, one Senate Democrat is personally against abortion and has previously supported additional restrictions.
Recent efforts to roll back access have died in committee, but Sears could be the tie-breaking vote if a bill makes it onto the floor.
Last week, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he would support a bill banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Some argue that’s when a fetus can feel pain, though that’s contested.
Asked how many weeks into a pregnancy she thinks abortion should be banned, Sears said, “Well, the Governor has said that he’s putting forward 15 weeks. I think that’s an agreeable time period.”
During her campaign, Sears said in an interview with Newsmax that she would support an abortion ban once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks into pregnancy. This would be similar to the law that took effect in Texas last fall. She didn’t give a direct answer to the same question in a subsequent interview before the election.
Asked on Tuesday if she is walking back that position, Sears said, “I’m not sure that I’m walking that back. I’m just saying 15 weeks. Let’s do the 15 weeks.”
Asked if she would support a more restrictive ban if Republicans had the votes down the road, as some anti-abortion groups have called for, Sears said, “I don’t know if they will or won’t. What I’m telling you is 15 weeks.”
State senators are expected to be back on the ballot come November 2023. The GOP will have an opportunity to make gains and dismantle the main barrier blocking possible new abortion restrictions.
Several red states with “trigger laws” aiming to ban almost all abortions in the wake of the court’s decision also set penalties, including fines and jail time, for providers that attempt to bypass restrictions.
Sears said she wouldn’t support penalizing pregnant women seeking an abortion but she wasn’t so sure about providers.
“I don’t know. Let’s talk about that. Let’s think about that. Let’s see what that looks like,” Sears said.
In 2020, former Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, was the deciding factor in passing a bill that removed several abortion regulations, including ultrasound requirements, the 24-hour waiting period and state-mandated counseling. The law also expanded who could provide certain abortions, including certified nurse midwives and nurse practitioners.
Asked if she would vote to repeal that law if given the chance, Sears said, “Well, you said a whole lot of things in there. So I would say at least we get the ultrasound to see where the baby is.”
Sears didn’t take a firm stance on other matters, including efforts in several Republican-led states to restrict or ban access to abortion pills distributed by mail. Virginia is one of 23 states that allows women to access medication abortions via telehealth.
“I don’t know. This is all new. These are things that we have to talk about,” Sears said.
With the constitutional right to an abortion now gone, some have raised concerns about other long-standing precedents being struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, including the right to same-sex marriage. Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that this could be revisited in the future.
In Virginia, a recent effort to protect same-sex marriage was shot down. Republicans rejected a proposal that would’ve allowed voters to decide in a ballot referendum whether a defunct ban should be removed from the State Constitution.
Asked if she would support a state-level ban on same-sex marriage if the high court paved the way for that policy, Sears said, “The Supreme Court has already said that that’s not going to be part of the issue. That’s a whole other thing that’s totally different from abortion,” Sears said. “I’ve been on the record as saying that when it comes to civil unions, I’m all for that.”
Same-sex couples turned to civil unions in jurisdictions where they were not legally allowed to marry before that right was federally protected. These unions do not entitle partners to certain federal benefits, such as filing taxes jointly.
Asked a second time to clarify if she would support a ban on same-sex marriage in Virginia, Sears said “You’re always wanting to bring in these other things. I mean, we could be talking and no matter how I say it, you change it on me and you make it seem like I’m trying to say something that I’m not trying to say. I said I support the civil union.”
“This is why I didn’t want anything but a live interview, because, you know, frankly, I can’t trust the media no matter what I say,” Sears said.
Sears said her focus is on improving the adoption system, expanding access to midwives and doulas and increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates so more doctors will accept low-income patients. She also wants to address higher death rates for black mothers and babies.
“Black woman, we’re dying in numbers that we shouldn’t be when we’re having our children. In fact, I almost died when I had my last baby,” Sears said. “There is so many things that we can do. Let’s talk about life. Why are we losing so many of our babies?”