Gov. Bob McDonnell takes the lead in Virginia abortion battle

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Photo - Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks during a ribbon-cutting and grand opening for the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Prince George County, Va., Monday, March 25, 2013. The public-private research center is a partnership between companies and three Virginia universities. (AP Photo/The Progress-Index, Patrick Kane)
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks during a ribbon-cutting and grand opening for the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Prince George County, Va., Monday, March 25, 2013. The public-private research center is a partnership between companies and three Virginia universities. (AP Photo/The Progress-Index, Patrick Kane)
Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has often pleaded with his fellow Republicans to avoid divisive social battles and focus on kitchen table issues, but in one of his final legislative acts as governor, McDonnell has pushed lawmakers into a contentious debate on abortion coverage by private insurance companies.

McDonnell amended a bill last week to ban health insurance companies from offering abortion coverage in the federally run insurance exchange that will begin operating next year under President Obama's health care reforms. Lawmakers will take up the amended bill, and 85 others, when they return to Richmond on Wednesday for the annual veto session.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Del. Tom Rust of Herndon, told The Washington Examiner on Friday that he intends to ask his colleagues to reject the amendment. The bill's original intent was to put Virginia in line with new federal regulations regarding the sale of health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

"I have fairly serious concerns with them," Rust said. "They interfere totally with the sale of insurance and prohibit the sale of any kind of a rider on an insurance policy. I think it's just gone too far."

A compromise in the federal health care reform law allows states to ban the sale of abortion coverage in the new health care exchanges, and 12 other states have taken that step. Virginia previously moved to block abortion coverage in a state-run exchange, but McDonnell chose to let the federal government operate its own insurance marketplace instead.

But, he said, the same rules regarding abortion coverage should apply.

"We shouldn't have an exchange that we pay in part for that covers that kind of procedures," McDonnell said last week on WTOP.

Republicans have aggressively pushed an anti-abortion agenda during the last four years, often at the expense of McDonnell's popularity. A bill last year that forced doctors to perform a transvaginal ultrasound before an abortion put McDonnell in a negative spotlight just as he was lobbying for the vice presidential slot on the GOP ticket.

As a pro-life Republican, McDonnell has mostly supported the repeated attempts to curb abortions in the state but allowed lawmakers to do the heavy lifting. This time, McDonnell's amendment puts him in the driver's seat of the state's anti-abortion movement, though with the transportation package still looming, the last-minute push has flown under the radar.

"It's clear they're trying to be a lot more quiet in their attacks on reproductive rights in an election year," said Caroline O'Shea, deputy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. "They're continuing to get out of providing abortion access through these back doors."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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