By signing a measure that inserts abortion without limits into Virginia's health benefits exchange, Gov. Ralph Northam "has crossed yet another tragic threshold," said the heads of the state's two Catholic dioceses.

"We decry the enactment of this deplorable policy, which is built on the destructive lie that abortion is health care. We are saddened when we contemplate the increased number of unborn lives likely to be lost as a result," Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and Richmond Bishop Barry C. Knestout said in a joint statement March 12.

The health exchange is a virtual marketplace created under the federal Affordable Care Act, and through it an estimated 240,000 Virginians access their health plans, the bishops explained.

"Under state law for the past decade, plans participating in Virginia's health exchange were prohibited from covering most abortions," they said. "This fundamentally pro-life provision undoubtedly saved many lives. Starting July 1 of this year, however, that provision will be eradicated from our law.

"Consequently, and tragically, health plans in the exchange will be allowed to cover abortions for any reason."

Under the new law, the taxpayer-funded public subsidies some people receive in order to afford to purchase health care plans now also "can cover abortions without limitation," Bishops Burbidge and Knestout said. "This means that taxpayers will be forced to fund plans that cover abortion on demand."

"Without despair, and with maximum determination, we will continue our advocacy for the preeminent priority of protecting unborn children from this threat," they said. "So many lives, who have no voice except ours, depend on it."

The expansion of abortion coverage reverses a ban put in place during Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's administration.