During this year’s General Assembly session, conservative state legislators and Governor McDonnell made their disdain for women’s autonomy and privacy obvious with a slate of bills designed to restrict access to reproductive health care, including the now-infamous mandatory ultrasound bill. With their new power in Richmond, anti-choice politicians thought 2012 was their premier opportunity to railroad these policies into law with little resistance. These lawmakers grossly underestimated the outrage their insidious attacks on women’s health would provoke in Virginia and across the nation. In fact, their agenda awakened the sleeping giant of pro-choice Virginians – the majority of citizens who believe the government should stay out of women’s private medical decisions and personal family choices. With this spring awakening will come retribution at the polls this fall and in fall 2013.
A new Quinnipiac University poll makes this clear. By a 52 to 41 percent margin, Virginians oppose the new mandatory ultrasound law signed by Governor McDonnell, which coerces doctors to perform and women to undergo the procedure before an abortion no matter what. What’s more, the poll revealed 72 percent of Virginians generally oppose laws that try to convince women seeking an abortion to change their minds. Regardless of their personal feelings on abortion, most people don’t think it’s the government’s place to interfere in their personal decision-making.
This poll adds to the overwhelming evidence we’ve seen this year that once people understand the true intrusive nature and insulting intention of anti-choice laws like ultrasound mandates, they oppose this sort of government invasion into their private lives. Governor McDonnell has tried throughout his time in office to hide his extremist conservative record and agenda on issues like reproductive health care, putting on a “moderate” face. We’ve always known the truth, however, and now Virginians are remembering the true McDonnell as well. His usually strong political armor has shown weakness, with his approval rating taking a 5-point plunge in the last month. The legislature’s approval rating has similarly dropped by 10 points.
I’ll admit that at the beginning of the session, with anti-choice legislators in control of the House and Senate, I thought it was a foregone conclusion that several of the many legislative attacks on reproductive rights would pass. I could never have predicted how this session would unfold.
The first bill introduced for the 2012 legislative session – the H.B. 1 “personhood” legislation to confer rights and legal status on fertilized eggs – generated public ire almost immediately after people learned of its underlying intent to lay groundwork for banning birth control and abortion. I thought this would be the issue we would rally around and could win in spite of the dire political environment in Richmond. As we now know, however, the story of this session became H.B. 462 – the bill requiring women to undergo an ultrasound and then wait 24 hours before having an abortion. This bill garnered national media scrutiny, galvanized thousands of Virginians to speak out, and nearly brought the state legislature to its knees.
Pro-choice advocates and our legislative allies hammered hard on the ultrasound mandate. We fully informed the General Assembly about the requirement for trans-vaginal ultrasounds with pictures and descriptions. We warned them about the inequity of the 24-hour waiting period for young, low income, and rural women. But not in my wildest dreams did I foresee the media scrutiny and grassroots public outcry that would follow.
Hearing all the facts about what this bill would require of women and doctors made the intrusive and demeaning intent of this bill viscerally apparent to the media and average Virginians. Anti-choice legislators try to hide their basic distrust and disrespect for women and their doctors, but this time, people weren’t buying it. As legislators talked on the House floor about abortion as a “lifestyle choice” and made jokes about how the media attention was affecting their personal sex lives, angry Virginians descended upon the Capitol like I have personally never seen. On a near daily and nightly basis, women and men came out in droves to peacefully protest risking arrest as the governor ordered SWAT teams to patrol the Capitol grounds. But would anyone listen?
Amid this firestorm of debate and criticism, Governor McDonnell slightly amended the bill and removed the requirement for transvaginal ultrasounds in an attempt to deflect the barrage of negative attention around him. Unfortunately, he ignored the will of the people and bowed to right-wing ideology by maintaining the basic nature of this bill and signing it into law.
McDonnell and the General Assembly missed the point. Women were outraged not only because of the specific invasive nature of the ultrasound required, but because of the basic lack of respect and trust in women that underlies any such mandate. Thinking he could end the controversy with a political maneuver and doublespeak was nothing more than another sign of his arrogance and hostility towards women’s rights and health.
A mandated ultrasound is a mandated ultrasound. Anti-abortion politicians will do everything in their power to demonize and demean women who choose to exercise their reproductive autonomy. I’m sure some lawmakers will continue to claim that this outrageous law is simply about making sure women are “fully informed” about the choice they are making, as if they can’t understand on their own. But I promise them this – Virginia women are now fully informed about how far conservatives want to go in pushing their ideology on others via the blunt force of law no matter how much citizens protest.
I believe Virginia women will hold lawmakers accountable for supporting the ultrasound bill and other legislation that targeted women’s health. Sleeping giants don’t like being disturbed and when they are, they are a force to be reckoned with. In November of this year and again in 2013’s General Assembly and gubernatorial elections, women will have the opportunity to grant their “informed consent” or rejection of these increasing attacks on their basic rights. I’m putting my money on the latter.