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Virginia Bishops Use Medicaid Stalemate to Call for New Abortion Funding Restriction

Erin Matson

The bishops urge repealing a section in the Code of Virginia that provides state funding for abortions in the Medicaid program in the event of a gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency in a fetus.

It’s a perfect storm for opponents of reproductive rights in Virginia: Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has made Medicaid expansion his signature goal, house Republicans haven’t budged, and now the Virginia Catholic Conference says it supports expanding Medicaid—and that a new abortion funding restriction should be enacted.

In a statement issued Friday, four weeks into special session, the Diocese of Richmond Bishop Francis DiLorenzo and Diocese of Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde lent backhanded support to Medicaid expansion. “Our advocacy is informed by the Church’s teaching that, first, everyone has a right to life and second, that healthcare is a right,” they said.

The bishops urge repealing a section in the Code of Virginia that provides state funding for abortions in the Medicaid program in the event of a gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency in a fetus.

Currently, Virginia Medicaid includes abortion coverage in four circumstances: life endangerment, rape, and incest is covered by federal Medicaid dollars; gross and totally incapacitating fetal impairment is covered by the commonwealth.

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In an interview with Rewire, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Executive Director Tarina Keene noted that the bishops’ statement argues for Medicaid expansion by expressing concern for the poor and vulnerable. Then, as she paraphrased it, it continued to say: “These pe ople, if they have a tragic pregnancy—screw them.” Keene said the commonwealth spent $13,058 to cover 14 abortions due to gross and totally incapacitating fetal impairment in 2013.

The bishops’ belated support for Medicaid expansion comes at a time when Virginia Democrats are grasping for negotiations. A special session began March 25 and Virginia Republicans have yet to relent on their opposition to Medicaid expansion. In response, hospitals have helped to lead the charge in lobbying them to soften their stance.

Joining this effort to lobby Republicans to expand Medicaid on behalf of the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association is Matt Cobb, a notable anti-choice official from the administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R). In his capacity as a deputy health secretary, Cobb helped to lead the implementation and interpretation of an onerous clinic regulations law that has forced clinics to close. Cobb’s former boss Bill Hazel continues to serve as secretary of health under McAuliffe. These relationships, coupled with McAuliffe’s recent signing of a new conscience clause for genetic counselors into law, make the prospect of an abortion-related bargain not entirely out of the question.

As previously reported in Rewire, 400,000 low-income Virginians will gain access to health coverage if Medicaid is expanded. The senate budget includes a measure called “Marketplace Virginia” that would take advantage of the funding offered under the Affordable Care Act; the house budget does not. If a budget agreement is not reached by July 1 the government will shut down.

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