Virginia Legislators Move to Offense to Win Back Reproductive Rights


It’s a new year, and legislatures across the country are preparing to kick off new sessions. The years 2010, 2011 and 2012 were devastating in many states, where anti-choice majorities used pre-packaged bills provided by outside national interest groups to decimate women’s rights to legal, safe abortion.

Virginia was one of the hardest hit of the states. Between mandatory forced ultrasounds and TRAP bills meant to shut down most of the clinics in the state, the last few years have been tough on those who value women’s reproductive health access. However, this year state politicians who support women’s choice are putting out an aggressive message: We will fight to get those bad laws off the books.

Even before the start of session it became clear that reproductive health supporters were ready to take back their rights. Prior to the opening session anti-choice and pro-choice demonstrators hit the sidewalks to rally lawmakers to their sides, according to reports from WDBJ7.com.

“There are forces at work across Virginia who don’t want women protected from the violence of abortion,” said one speaker at a rally organized by the Virginia Society for Human Life and The Family Foundation.  Nearby, abortion rights supporters held a counter demonstration. “For safe abortion we will fight,” they chanted, “No more back alleys in the night.”

The enthusiasm carried on into the session, where Virginia Senator Ralph Northam announced he would propose ending the mandatory forced ultrasound law passed the year before. According to the Daily Press, Northam vowed that he would end the state’s new found reputation as talk show joke fodder:

“The law was an embarrassment for the commonwealth, and we were the laughingstock of the late night comedy shows. As a physician I am guided by the Hippocratic Oath, and understand as well as anybody the sacred relationship between a patient and their doctor. The last thing we need in Richmond is legislators interfering with that sacred relationship.”

Other Democratic lawmakers announced plans to revoke the TRAP law, or reiterating that all FDA approved forms of hormonal contraception are in fact contraception and cannot be banned under any bills defining life as beginning at fertilization.

The preemptive strike is logical. Anti-choice politicians were already toying with proposals to force poor women with severely disabled fetuses to carry to term against their will by denying them coverage for an abortion, while anti-abortion political groups complain that TRAP legislation that would close clinics aren’t being implimented fast enough.

By taking an aggressive stance, pro-choice legislators can not only bring the battle onto more favorable ground, but hopefully with the support of enough constituents force their opponents into rolling back their own past restrictive laws.

“Last year we saw Virginia’s anti-choice lawmakers launch an all-out attack on reproductive health and rights,” said Tarina Keene, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia via email. “Because of their actions, thousands of Virginian women have been forced to jump through politically motivated and medically unnecessary hoops in order to access safe, legal reproductive health care.  This year, I am proud to have our pro-choice allies in the General Assembly fighting to reverse the damage and protect women’s health. If their bills pass, Virginian women will once again have access to the comprehensive health care they deserve.”

Still, pro-choice activists in Virgina are aware that whatever efforts they make, their anti-choice counterparts can always be counted on for a potential sneak attack. “I don’t think we have truly seen all possible anti-abortion legislation yet,” said Shelley Abrams, a reproductive rights advocate who runs a local clinic. “We know from history that anything can back tacked on to non-relevant legislation. So, until the session is over, I am expecting all types of horrible bills to show up.”

Abrams said that she considers the pro-choice push to roll back last year’s restrictions “brilliant.” 

I think it is important to put abortion rights on the offensive. For so long, pro-choicers have allowed the air around abortion to be negative. We have allowed abortion to be referred to as ‘Safe, but rare’ by our legislators, our President, our Secretary of State. This has created an atmosphere of shame around abortion and what legislator wants to create proactive legislation around something shameful? It can only help the movement when people who are accountable to voters are unafraid of standing up for abortion rights.

Despite her excitement and support, however, Abrams admits that she isn’t entirely sure that the anti-abortion agenda can be reversed. “As someone who runs an abortion clinic, I feel like I better gets the funds ready to make some giant and unnecessary architectural changes. If I can find them. I feel like this year, I will see friends and allies across Virginia close their doors after years of fighting.”

Even if the pro-choice bills aren’t passed, or the governor chooses to veto them, Abrams still believes that it is the actions of the politicians, not the will of the people they represent. “I feel like the tide is changing in Virginia as far as public opinion on abortion rights, but that it will unfortunately come too late to save access,” said Abrams. “I feel hopeful that people are waking up, while sad that they and their daughters will suffer the loss of actual access to abortion.”

Will a strong offence work? It certainly can’t hurt, and it’s a tactic every state should try to replicate.

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