‘You Don’t Always Get To Be at the Table’: Virginia Democrat Champions ‘Conscience Law’

A recently signed law to license genetic counselors in the Commonwealth of Virginia includes a sweeping “conscience” provision that is the direct result of a partnership between an anti-choice group and a prominent Democrat who just two years ago was held up nationally as a hero and champion for reproductive rights, according to new information obtained by RH Reality Check.

HB 612, along with a companion bill, SB 330, provide that genetic counselors may not be forced to participate in counseling that conflicts with their deeply held moral or religious beliefs. HB 612 has been passed by both chambers and was signed by the governor, so it is now law; SB 330, the symbolic senate companion to the house bill, has been passed with an identical conscience clause but not signed by the governor. If the governor were to veto SB 330, HB 612 would still stand.

In an action alert from the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia urging the governor to veto SB 330, the group outlines the legislation’s impact, likening it to a so-called conscience bill that was recently vetoed in Arizona:

A state licensed professional will be able to deny counseling to any patient simply because the patient is lesbian or gay or of a different religious faith or unmarried and pregnant or because the person may want to take an action with which the counselor doesn’t personally agree based on the genetic information provided by the counselor … It will shield a genetic counselor from damages even if the counselor took purposeful action based on his or her beliefs that results in actual physical harm or death to the patient.

Genetic counseling licensure laws are being promoted by groups including the National Society of Genetic Counselors, which states on its website a goal of ensuring uniformity between state laws so as to provide “greater flexibility between states in how genetic counselors practice, and, most importantly, provide the highest quality services.” The group does not include a conscience clause among model legislative provisions listed online.

The conscience language in Virginia’s genetic counseling licensure law was engineered by Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston), who made headlines in 2012 for introducing an amendment to require men to undergo rectal examinations in what is now Virginia’s forced ultrasound law. Howell served as the chief sponsor of SB 330 and commissioned the Family Foundation, an anti-choice group that calls itself “the largest and most influential Virginia-based organization of its kind,” to write the language, Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, told RH Reality Check.

Keene said she tried to lobby Howell’s office to change the clause after the passage of the house bill. “Sen. Howell’s aide said the Family Foundation wrote the conscience clause,” she said. “She said you are too late to work on this. She looked straight at me and said, ‘You don’t always get to be at the table.'”

The house bill subsequently passed the senate, and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed it. However, pro-choice advocates continued to lobby the governor’s office, and ultimately the governor recommended an amendment to the senate bill that would have watered down the clause to require that counselors provide patients a timely notice of refusals to provide services and a referral to another genetic counselor. The recommendation failed to pass as an amendment in the senate, leading the Family Foundation to boast that Sen. Howell had said she felt “perfectly comfortable” with the original clause.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and NARAL Pro-Choice America are working on a letter to Gov. McAuliffe urging him to veto SB 330 for the purpose of setting a symbolic precedent against conscience legislation, Keene told RH Reality Check. A call to the governor’s office asking why he signed HB 612 if he wished to change the conscience clause has not been returned.

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