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Virginia bill would count a fetus as a car passenger in HOV lanes

Reproductive rights advocates warn that the bill is the latest attempt by anti-abortion Republicans to cut away at abortion rights by pushing "personhood" laws.
A Republican legislator in Virginia has introduced a bill that would allow pregnant people to use HOV lanes.
A Republican legislator in Virginia has introduced a bill that would allow pregnant people to use HOV lanes.Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

A Virginia bill would deem a pregnant person's fetus a passenger in a car, thereby allowing the vehicle to use the car pool lane on highways.

Reproductive rights activists say the legislation amounts to a thinly veiled attempt by anti-abortion Republican lawmakers to further curtail abortion rights by advancing so-called personhood laws that seek to protect the rights of the unborn through unconventional avenues.

HB 1894, which a Republican legislator pre-filed in the General Assembly on Tuesday, "provides that a pregnant woman shall be considered two people for the purposes of determining occupancy" in high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes on expressways in the state.

The legislation would require pregnant people to show "proof" of pregnancy, obtainable by having "certified" their pregnancies with the state Transportation Department. Under the bill, the certifications would then be "linked" to toll collection devices — typically E-Z Passes — in vehicles.

The bill is the second of its kind ever proposed; last year, Texas Republicans introduced a similar measure. Texas' HB 521 also would have allowed a solo pregnant driver to use high occupancy lanes, proposing that the unborn child being carried amounted to a person deserving full human rights.

Legislators proposed the bill — which never advanced in the GOP-controlled Legislature — after a pregnant Dallas woman made headlines for arguing to police officers that her unborn child counted as a second person in the car when she was pulled over for illegally using the car pool lane.

High occupancy lanes require drivers to have at least one passenger in their vehicles when they use the lanes.

Like Texas' HB 521, Virginia's HB 1894 is unlikely to advance in the state’s politically split Legislature.

Still, reproductive rights advocates warn that the bill is the latest attempt by anti-abortion Republicans to cut away at abortion rights by pushing "personhood" laws that aim to establish measures that equate a fetus with a human life.

"Granting legal rights for fertilized eggs from the moment of conception would have sweeping and harmful consequences across the board for people," said Tarina Keene, the executive director of REPRO Rising Virginia, a reproductive rights group. They could include "vast" impacts on stem cell research and the freedom to undergo in vitro fertilization, she added.

Such measures, other advocates cautioned, would help restrict abortion access by defining a fetus as a person.

"Anti-abortion groups have been looking for ways to change laws in ways that change the definition of a pregnant person from one person to two," said Elizabeth Nash, an expert on state legislation at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization that works to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights.

"By doing that, they grant personhood throughout pregnancy. And by considering a pregnant person as two people — in this case, allowing a pregnant person to use an HOV lane — you're ultimately making it harder to uphold abortion rights, because you have essentially imbued a fetus with personhood," Nash added.

Nicholas Freitas
Nicholas Freitas.Steve Helber / AP file

The Virginia bill's sponsor, Republican Del. Nicholas Freitas, did not respond to questions about his legislation.

According to Guttmacher, which closely tracks state legislation that seeks to curtail or ban abortion rights, the Texas and Virginia bills are the only personhood bills specifically targeting car pool lanes that have been introduced in the U.S.

Last year, however, legislators across the country introduced eight bills that would have either explicitly or effectively banned abortion by establishing fetal personhood, according to Guttmacher.

One, in Arizona, was enacted: a 15-week abortion ban signed into law by then-Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, that included a provision, carried over from a 2021 law, that reproductive rights advocates say granted personhood to fetuses. A federal judge blocked the provision in July.

Despite the Virginia bill’s limited prospects to advance, reproductive rights advocates nevertheless warned that even the concept of such a personhood bill could, at some point, lead to "absurd" new regulations and law about anything that has occupancy rules.

"You're creating this legal nightmare about the number when you're talking about building occupancies and that sort of thing," Keene said. 

"It could have implications for how many people are in an elevator," she added.