Confronting Stigma in Hampton Roads

By Ta’Kindra Westbrook, Hampton Roads Community Organizer. Contact her at @takindra or email her here.

This past weekend, I was very excited to attend the first “Curls for Choice” event in Norfolk, VA.

“Curls for Choice” is the brain child of one of our choice ambassadors (a recent graduate from our Hampton Roads Leadership and Advocacy Summit) and community organizers. After attending many choice activities and events, the two recognized that there was not an equal representation of women of color at these events. They saw a need for a space where progressive, pro-choice, women of color could meet to discuss issues that were important to them — and with that, Curls for Choice was born.

At NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, we recognize that a cultural shift needs to happen if we want to remove the stigma of abortion. Curls for Choice is an opportunity to begin that cultural shift through conversations among a small group of women of color in Hampton Roads. At the group’s first meeting, we discussed the correlation between the stigma of abortion and natural hair. The women quickly found that stigma is the same no matter the topic.

Women at "Curls for Choice" event discuss the stigma around natural hair and reproductive health

Women at “Curls for Choice” event discuss the stigma around natural hair and reproductive health

Each woman shared personal anecdotes about transitioning from relaxed to natural hair. Some shared comments that we in the natural community have heard before, such as “You are very brave to do that, I don’t think I could wear my hair that way,” or even “You’ll never find a husband.” While these comments may seem outrageous, they are actually very common, and have been experienced by many women of color who choose to wear their hair naturally.

Interestingly,  many of these same comments are also made to women who share their story of choosing abortion. Women who have chosen abortion as an option may hear  “You are very brave; I don’t think I could have made that decision,” or even “you’ll never get a husband.” Sometimes these are the nicer comments (as was the case with this woman’s abortion story), but ultimately the root is the same – judgment and stigma.

More often than not, women are put in a position to explain their decisions and choices, whether it is about their hair or reproductive health. That’s why NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia is working on shifting the culture so that a woman’s choice is her sacred right — no explanation needed.  I was inspired by the first Curls for Choice event, and I know we’re off to a great start.

Are you interested in getting involved? Curls for Choice is welcoming women of color in the Hampton Roads area to join us in having candid and culturally relevant conversation around reproductive choices and health. If you are interested in attending an event or learning more, please contact me! 

Rip Sullivan: The Right Choice for Virginia

By Sarah Hogg, Advocacy & Communications Intern. Contact her @SarahLovely or e-mail her here.

In July, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia proudly endorsed Rip Sullivan, a Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates’s 48th District. Rip Sullivan is running in a special election on Tuesday, August 19th to fill the seat of former Delegate Bob Brink, who announced his retirement in June after accepting a position with Governor Terry McAuliffe’s administration. The 48th House District represents parts of Arlington, McLean, and Falls Church.

This election is about much, much more than simply filling a seat. It is more important now than ever to continue to elect pro-choice, pro-women, and pro-family politicians into the Virginia General Assembly. With the sudden resignation of Phillip Puckett and the retirement of Henry Marsh, the Virginia State Senate is down two Democrats, and, effectively, two votes for women’s health. Virginia voters cannot afford for the House to slip any further into archaic conservatism, especially while the previously Democratically-controlled Senate is also in turmoil.

Rip Sullivan is the right choice for the 48th House District — and the right choice for Virginia. With this special election, Virginians have a chance to keep the 48th district seat in the House in the hands of a fair, progressive candidate who will fight for abortion access, affordable birth control, and women’s health clinics across the Commonwealth. Sullivan believes that a woman’s decisions about her healthcare should be between her and her doctor, not between her and government. He has pledged to oppose any measures that would limit reproductive freedom, and also wants to expand Medicaid across Virginia, thereby helping thousands of women get affordable and accessible healthcare coverage.

Between Sullivan and his opponent, Republican Dave Foster, it is quite obvious which man will fight for women and which man will try to legislate against them. Foster has said that he opposes abortion and called Roe v. Wade a case of “judges imposing their will.”

Rip Sullivan with Virginia women's health activists

Rip Sullivan with Virginia women’s health activists

If you are a Virginia resident living in the 48th, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia strongly urges you to vote for Rip Sullivan on August 19th. If you are unsure what district you live in, visit the Virginia General Assembly legislator finder and plug in your information to see your elected officials and district number. To find out where your polling place is located, visit the Virginia State Board of Elections. Finally, to read more about Rip, his background, and his stance on other issues, visit his website.

If you don’t live in the 48th House District but would still like to work to elect Rip Sullivan, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington Action Fund would love to have you phone bank with us on Monday, August 18th at 6pm. Please RSVP here (dinner and drinks provided!).

Pro-Choice Leadership & Advocacy Summits

By Julia Smart, Grassroots Organizing Fellow at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia

Over the past month, we here at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia have been thrilled and honored to meet an inspiring group of pro-choice activists through our first-ever Pro-Choice Leadership & Advocacy Summits. These daylong trainings on reproductive rights activism, messaging, and policy drew over 60 pro-choice advocates representing 30 Virginia cities. Participants came together in order to learn how they could advance reproductive rights in their own communities, starting with the inaugural training at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg (26 attendees), and following this at George Mason University in Arlington (35 attendees).

Donna Crane, Policy Director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, speaks to Arlington attendees

Donna Crane, Policy Director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, speaks to Arlington attendees

Although all participants already identified as pro-choice, their reasons for attending our summits varied from person to person. Some were university students representing women’s health organizations on their own campuses, some were seasoned activists hoping to learn the latest tools and tricks, while others were new to the movement and looking for a way to succinctly and appropriately voice their views. Still, among them one thing was clear: all were dedicated to advancing and protecting reproductive rights in Virginia.

After a quick introduction from the leadership of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, both summits kicked off with an overview of exactly what it means to be pro-choice, followed by a briefing on policy shifts in reproductive health issues over the past few decades. Next, Erin Matson of RH Reality Check spoke to attendees of her own experience implementing change through grassroots activism. After a lunch break, Summit attendees returned for three critical sessions. First, they focused on issue messaging with Travis Ballie, Field Manager of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Next, they were taught effective lobbying from Abbey Philips and Arlene Spinelli, both legislative assistants at the Virginia General Assembly. Finally, they were schooled in online advocacy by social media guru Michelle Kinsey Bruns a.k.a. @clinicescort. From there, attendees were split into groups depending on where they were from in order to draft their own plans of action. These teams would become their choice advocacy circles with whom they would keep pro-choice values alive after the Summit.

Williamsburg's presenters and participants

Williamsburg’s presenters and participants

Each attendee walked away from our summits as a freshly-minted Choice Ambassador – and we are already seeing their amazing work in communities across the state. It’s only a few weeks out and Williamsburg Choice Ambassadors have already been spotted at farmers markets and visibility events, while those in Arlington have attended choice movies and started personal one-on-one conversations with their families and friends. In the weeks to come, we expect to see even more amazing advocacy, including letter writing parties for Medicaid expansion, meetings with legislators, rallies in Richmond, choice book clubs, and more.

The goal of these Summits was simple: to develop a proactive group of dedicated activists willing to take up the fight on their own to defend their bodily autonomy and personal liberties. I am proud to say that we overwhelmingly achieved our goal.

Arlington speakers stand with our new Choice Ambassadors

Arlington speakers stand with our new Choice Ambassadors

As Grassroots Organizing Fellow here at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia (and the person responsible for running these summits), I  started off just crossing my fingers that I could get 20 people together who cared enough about this issue that they’d give a day to learning more about it. But to my delight, I found over 60 amazing choice advocates who not only gave up their Saturdays for the training, but have also committed to continuing to organize around choice in their communities for the weeks and months to come.

Reproductive health and rights will likely remain under attack in the Commonwealth for the foreseeable future, but our 60 new Choice Ambassadors leave me more inspired than worried.

Your LAST chance to speak out against dangerous TRAP restrictions!

By Sarah Hogg, Advocacy & Communications Intern. Contact her @SarahLovely or e-mail her here.

We have one last chance to speak up for women’s health centers in Virginia. Have you taken action yet? 

Last year, the Virginia Board of Health finalized burdensome and medically-unnecessary restrictions (also known as TRAP regulations) designed to close Virginia women’s health centers that provide cancer screenings, family planning, and safe, legal abortion. Thankfully, after Gov. McAuliffe initiated a review last month, the Virginia Department of Health is now reviewing these dangerous regulations to decide whether they should be repealed, amended, or upheld.

Today is the LAST day of the public comment period on TRAP restrictions – which means this our last chance to speak out against the regulations before the Department of Health completes their review.  Make public comment now! 

Pro-choice Virginians from across the Commonwealth have already stepped up in a big way to help us keep our health centers open. On Tuesday we – along with our allies from ProgressVA, ACLU of Virginia, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia – delivered 4,844 pro-choice, anti-TRAP comments to the Virginia Department of Health!

Our box of 4,844 comments to the Virginia Department of Health

This is a huge step — but we have even more work to do before midnight tonight. Please submit your comment now & help us reach our goal of 5,000 comments against TRAP restrictions! 

You and I know just how much is at stake here.  If TRAP regulations are not repealed or amended , the repercussions for women, families, and healthcare across the state will be swift and severe. Under these archaic laws, three women’s health clinics across the Commonwealth have already had to close their doors or stop providing abortion services. If more women’s health centers are forced to close, Virginia women and families will become even more isolated from the critical healthcare they need and deserve.

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NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, ProgressVA, ACLU of Virginia, and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia deliver comments to the Board of Health!

At midnight tonight, the Virginia Board of Health will stop accepting comments and will begin its review, to be completed by October 1st by Health Commissioner Marissa Levine. Don’t miss your chance to be a part of history.

Speak out against TRAP restrictions now! 

Supreme Court Delivers Huge Blow to Women’s Health & Rights

By Sarah Hogg, Advocacy & Communications intern. Contact her @SarahLovely or e-mail her here.

“The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.” – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In less than one week, the Supreme Court has succeeded in alienating millions of women across Virginia & the United States.  Over the past week, the  highest court in America handed down two extreme anti-choice decisions that violate women’s authority over their decisions and treat women’s bodies as a nothing more than a battleground to be legislated upon. On Thursday, the court voted unanimously to strike down the Massachusetts buffer zone law, which protected women against threatening protesters outside of abortion clinics. The court said that this law violated pro-life Americans’ free speech to “counsel”  women on sidewalks about abortion. As if that ruling wasn’t enough, on Monday the court decided in a 5-4 vote to side with Hobby Lobby in what was arguably one of the most closely-watched Supreme Court cases of the term. The ruling allows for-profit “closely-held” corporations to interfere with their women employees’ access to birth control, giving more rights to corporations than to women.

Anti-choice protesters gather outside of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC

Anti-choice protesters gather outside of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC

Both the buffer zone ruling and the Hobby Lobby ruling are heinous infringements upon women’s rights. Having worked at a Planned Parenthood myself, I have firsthand experience of just how damaging anti-choice protesters can be. On any given day, there were at least 5-10 protesters outside of our clinic—and let me tell you, they were not peacefully “counseling” the women that came inside. Luckily, my clinic had a private property line that protesters could not cross, but many clinics across the United States are not so lucky. Despite the private property line, the protesters still had a massive impact on the patients. They stood on the sidewalk outside of the clinic and held massive, disgusting signs of what they claimed were aborted fetuses. They rushed at women turning into the clinic and thrust information through car windows. They shouted at women walking to the parking lot into the clinic about how they were murdering children and how they would always regret this decision. Women would walk into the lobby of our clinic agitated, angry, scared, and intimidated, terrorized by the protesters who were only trying to “peacefully counsel” them. The Supreme Court’s ruling against buffer zones endangers women, plain and simple. If the Supreme Court is allowed to maintain a 200-foot buffer zone, why can’t women be afforded a fraction of that same right?

The buffer zone law was one blow; one that the pro-choice community hoped would be the only anti-choice decision of this term. Then, the Hobby Lobby ruling delivered another huge blow for women’s bodily autonomy. At it’s most fundamental, the Hobby Lobby opinion is nothing short of legalized sexism. Although the Court concludes that private, for-profit corporations can refuse to provide contraception to it’s employees,  it clearly states that the opinion should not apply  to blood transfusions or vaccines — all things other religious corporations may find issue with. How is it that something 99% of women will use in their lifetimes is fair ground for restriction…but everything else is not?

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia rallies outside of the Supreme Court as the Hobby Lobby decision is announced

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia rallies outside of the Supreme Court as the Hobby Lobby decision is announced

Furthermore, while Hobby Lobby denies birth control coverage to its women employees, it still covers several forms of reproductive health care for men, including Viagra and vasectomies.  The fact that all of the women on the Supreme Court dissented in this decision is only further proof of discrimination—women now have limited access to birth control if their bosses object to it because five male justices on the Supreme Court voted in Hobby Lobby’s favor. Once again, men are the ones making the decisions about women’s bodies.

It is absolutely deplorable that we are living in the 21st century and still dealing with not only restricted access to abortions, but now also restricted access to birth control. It is unconscionable that women cannot be afforded protection from highly damaging verbal attacks outside of abortion clinics. The Supreme Court has sunk to a new low, and the women on the court know it, especially Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who penned the quote at the beginning of this article in her scathing 35-page dissent to the Hobby Lobby ruling. This week marks the beginning of what may be a slippery slope for the rights of targeted and oppressed groups across America. If the Supreme Court can legalize sexism, what else can they do? What is next? The answer to that question is certainly terrifying, but as pro-choice, feminist activists we must continue to push forward. While we may have lost two battles this week, the war is far from over.

Sign up to volunteer with NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia & help us continue the fight for reproductive health and rights in the Commonwealth.

 

Introducing Alyssa!

By Alyssa Seidorf, 2014 Advocacy & Communications Intern

Hello Virginia! My name is Alyssa Seidorf, and I am so thrilled to be working as a summer 2014 Advocacy & Communication Intern for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. I am a recent graduate of Virginia Tech where I spent my college years completely immersed in feminist activism. Working for gender equality and reproductive justice are passions of mine that I know I will dedicate the rest of my life to supporting.

Alyssa Seidorf, a new 2014 Advocacy & Communications Intern!

Alyssa Seidorf, a new 2014 Advocacy & Communications Intern!

My brand of feminism is about compassion, listening to others lived experiences, and working to make the world a more just place so that everyone might one day be respected, valued, and heard. As Hillary Clinton famously said, “Women’s rights are human rights”, and I am so excited to join forces with NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia as they support legislators who understand and respect this while also working to block policies that undermine women’s safety and bodily autonomy. Virginians deserve better than TRAP regulations, ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’, and politicians who are out of touch with Virginian women and their families!

I am so excited to embark on this new adventure with NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia to support work to ensure every Virginian has reproductive justice – access to a full range of healthcare options, comprehensive sex education, and the empowerment and means to raise (or not) a family at a time that is right for them. Advocacy to educate young people about their body and rights is one of the fundamental steps to ensuring our youth are equipped to make healthy reproductive health decisions, and I am so excited to start my first project to help get this vital information into their hands!

Virginia Senate in Turmoil: A Recap

By Sarah Hogg, Advocacy & Communications Intern. Contact her at @SarahLovely or email her here

Last week was a pretty crazy week in Virginia politics. In case you missed it, we’ve got your recap right here!

On Monday, June 9th, anti-choice Democratic Senator Phillip Puckett abruptly and unexpectedly resigned. This shocking news – announced as Richmond legislators continued their ongoing debate over Medicaid Expansion –   marked a huge  and consequential power shift in the Virginia Senate. While Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam had been serving as the tie-breaking vote in an evenly split (20 – 20) Senate, Puckett’s resignation effectively gave Virginia Republicans the majority with a 20 votes to the Democrats’ 19.  Furthermore, Puckett’s resignation initially appeared to be prompted by new jobs for himself and his daughter — leading at least one progressive organization to call for an investigation into the possibility of an ethic violation.

Democratic Sen. Phil Puckett is anti-choice, but his sudden resignation caused a troubling power shift in the Virginia Senate

Democratic Sen. Phil Puckett is anti-choice, but his resignation caused a troubling power shift in the Virginia Senate

Regardless of the motivation behind Puckett’s resignation, the news is incredibly troubling. Although Sen. Puckett is anti-choice (and has consistently scored a 0% on our legislative scorecards) loss of Democratic control in the VA Senate could have HUGE consequences for women’s rights — not to mention healthcare for over 400,000 Virginians.

The first casualty came late in the evening on June 13th.  After hours of debate, the Virginia General Assembly finally adopted a state budget. But instead of including federal money to expand Medicaid in Virginia, the budget completely rejects Medicaid Expansion – and even includes language to further block health care expansion in the Commonwealth. We at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia are extremely disappointed that the current budget (currently awaiting action from Governor McAuliffe) does not include health care for 400,000 working men, women, and their families. We will keep you updated as the budget process continues — check back for more information & breaking news!

 

 

Intersectionality on campus: Backlash against pride week at JMU

sarah hogg pic

In fall 2013, Sarah started a “Why I’m voting pro-choice campaign on the JMU campus”

By Sarah Hogg, Choice Out Loud intern at James Madison University. Connect with Sarah at @SarahLovely or email her here

I remember exactly when I made the conscious decision to make politically charged pro-choice and queer activism my life’s work. I was just barely nineteen, sitting in my college town’s Obama campaign headquarters on November 5th, 2012, waiting for election results to come in and reflecting on my work over the past three and a half months. In August of 2012, I accepted a fellowship with Organizing for America to work on President Obama’s campaign. I worked everyday canvassing, phone banking, registering voters, and advocating for political issues on my campus, James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in tears, simultaneously full of anxiousness and hope, waiting for the race to be called. When I found out that President Obama won, I knew I could never turn away from this work. I had truly found what I was meant to do, and that was an amazing feeling.

Fast forward to now, almost a year and a half after election night, and so much and so little has changed at the same time. Since fall of 2012, I’ve interned with Planned Parenthood and staffed Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for Governor. I’m in the middle of my second year serving on the exec board of JMU’s only student-led LGBTQ+ organization, Madison Equality, and I’m in my third semester interning for NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. All of my experiences have been amazing, and I feel so fortunate for the opportunities I’ve been afforded. While I love the work I do, it can also be unbelievably challenging mentally and emotionally, something I’ve especially come to find in the last week.

Sarah (right) with Alena, Advocacy Manager of NARAL Pro-Choice VA

At my school over the past week, our queer community has received a shocking amount of backlash to our annual pride week, GayMU. GayMU is a weeklong celebration of queer sexuality and gender identity, and it’s been a part of James Madison University for many years. While in previous years we saw a protest here or there, this year Madison Equality and the queer community at large at JMU have been the unfortunate recipients of a considerable amount of discrimination and hate speech. After sending out our bulk e-mail advertising GayMU, our exec board received homophobic responses from students complaining about our week of celebration. One e-mail was from an outraged student who threatened to take legal action against us immediately because his religious liberties were being infringed upon. (Of course, this is utterly ridiculous and he has no ground.) Another student’s e-mail detailed the ways in which we were throwing our choice to be queer in his face, and also claimed we were indecent and seeking attention. These e-mails were accompanied by a smattering of negative responses on social media.

On Thursday evening (April 3rd), a twitter account surfaced named “StraightJMU.” It’s bio reads: “Real JMU gentleman. We need to take our school back into our own hands!” and associates itself with a fraternity on JMU’s campus. The account quickly began to spew hate, bigotry, and extreme discrimination, and even began to target specific students—myself included. In a response to a tweet of mine proclaiming queer people’s right to be at JMU, I was told to go up north. Other students were also told hateful things. This account doesn’t have many followers, and I want to emphasize the outpouring of support that JMU’s queer community has received from students and faculty, but that doesn’t change the fact that people like this exist on our campus.

One thing is clear about the GayMU issue we’re facing at James Madison University: Queer people are not always welcome. On a campus that boasts acceptance and friendliness like no other school, this is a huge deal. We are told we should not be here, that we should not exist, that we should stay subordinate. And this is why I’m writing today. It is absolutely impossible to look at queer issues without also thinking of issues of reproductive justice, of racism, sexism, classism, ableism. I’ve been organizing in the pro-choice movement for almost a year and a half, and I see an unbelievable amount of connections between the subordination of women and women’s bodies and the homophobia and transphobia queer folks are facing on my campus today. Women have consistently been told that we are not fully human. Instead, we are seen as pawns in political games, individuals whose bodies are not truly their own in doctor’s offices and abortion clinics, unworthy of equal rights, protection, and respect. Queer folks experience the same thing. We are repeatedly told that we are in some way unnatural or abnormal, that expressing ourselves and loving others freely are high crimes, that we don’t belong in society and should instead hide ourselves and step back into the closets that confined and damaged so many of us for so long. People of color, disabled folks, and individuals of low socioeconomic status (among many other oppressed and minority groups) experience similar discrimination that is equally as threatening and dangerous.

JMU i stand

As an out queer woman, I know how important intersectionality is when engaging in activism. I cannot fight for queer rights or women’s rights without also fighting for the rights of other historically oppressed minorities. Our oppressions intersect within ourselves, within our communities, and within our culture. Being an activist means constantly fighting dominant, subjugating systems and forces within our culture—patriarchy, heteronormativity and heterosexism, the gender binary, white-centric ideas of what it means to be American, institutions that refuse to make themselves accessible for people with disabilities, the list goes on.

When I made the conscious decision to make activism my life’s work, I had no idea there were so many entanglements and red tape surrounding what I love. I hardly knew what intersectionality meant, and I hadn’t come out yet. I will continue to fight, and I urge you to join me. Please support my queer community at James Madison University this week, keeping in mind the intersectional oppressions that keep so many of us in places where we feel immobile and unable to take action. But, with this, we CAN take action. You CAN help. To stand in solidarity with queer students at JMU, please share the above graphic & use the hashtag #SupportJMUpride. Thank you for standing with us!

 

Pro-choice on campus: George Mason University

By Elvira Razzano, Choice Out Loud intern at George Mason University 

After our pro-choice student organization was forced to disband in the Spring of 2013 due to a low member turnout at meetings, I was motivated to build a coalition of pro-choice students at George Mason University. I was excited to join NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia as their Choice Out Loud intern on campus, and I immediately  started  reaching out to my pro-choice friends, who donated their time to advertising my events and helped me table to recruit more pro-choice students.

Elvira Razzano on the George Mason University campus!

From the start, our biggest obstacle was the fact that our campus climate definitely leaned anti-choice; there is a registered pro-life student organization that frequently holds events on campus, most visibly by holding graphic images in the center of campus every so often. However, I knew that with enough momentum we could show George Mason University that their movement did not represent the student body as a whole.

On a rainy Friday afternoon in February, I organized a few students to counter-protest these anti-choice,  graphic images on campus. We got plenty of thumbs up and thank-yous from passersby, showing us that the student body recognized and appreciated our pro-choice efforts. It was that day that I learned that the Genocide Awareness Project, an anti-choice organization that travels to college campuses with huge graphic images that compare abortion to genocide, was coming to campus.  I knew I had to do something, so I spent most of March planning a massive counter-protest against them.

GMU Protest

Elvira organized dozens of GMU students to protest an offensive anti-choice display on campus

I’m happy to report that pro-choice students were a constant presence against the Genocide Awareness Project when they were on campus March 24th, 25th, and 26th! We held assertive signs with slogans that said “Pro Choice is not Pro Abortion,” “My Constitutional Rights Are Not Up For Debate,” and “Not Your Uterus? Not Your Decision.” We engaged in peaceful conversation with members of the Genocide Awareness Project and received overwhelming support and affirmation from the Mason community; some students were compelled to drop their things, grab a sign, and counter-protest with us.

Although the counter-protest against the Genocide Awareness Project was a huge success, it is imperative that the Mason community knows that reproductive rights are still under attack even though the Genocide Awareness Project is no longer on our campus. I am excited to spend the rest of my Choice Out Loud internship letting the Mason community know just that!

A TRAP Tantrum in Manassas

By: Michelle Kinsey Bruns, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Foundation Board Member

Click for Facebook event and RSVP!In the last year, Virginia’s number of abortion clinics has dropped from 20 to 18, due to new regulations designed to be too tough to meet. In Manassas, one City Council member has spent the last six years leading a big-government crusade for these burdensome clinic regulations. Winning the restrictions he wanted at the state level last year hasn’t slowed Marc Aveni’s zeal for still more restrictions at the local level.

Next Monday, March 10, the Council will hold a re-vote that Aveni has forced on a question he lost by a 5-1 vote over a month ago: should Manassas single out clinics for fast-tracked zoning reclassification and special regulations requiring public hearings and a city council vote as a condition of operation?

Having failed to get his way, Aveni packed the last city council meeting with 100 clinic protesters to insist that the council re-do the vote, simply because he didn’t like its original outcome. We pro-choice people of conscience, from Manassas or elsewhere, need to be seen and heard in that council room on Monday night (RSVP on Facebook!), because the outrageous unfairness of a stunt-mob reversal of a finished vote doesn’t mean it can’t happen. There must be taxpayers who would like this council to accomplish something other than regulating pregnant people’s bodies, but those aren’t the people Aveni packed the chamber with last week.

Let’s back up. Aveni was first elected to Manassas City Council in 2006. Within the year, he proposed a resolution suggesting that the city amend its code to regulate its one abortion clinic, despite its lack of standing or technical expertise to do so. After the council was informed that medical regulation is a state function, Manassas’ fringey anti-choice Delegate Robert Marshall then suggested Board of Health regulation to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office as a way around State Senate rebuffs of repeated House of Delegates attempts to restrict abortion access. In 2010, Cooch responded with, essentially, “that’s a fabulous idea!” And then there, again, was Marc Aveni, with a resolution of the City of Manassas’ support for greater state abortion regulations, over the objections of fellow City Council Republican Mark Wolfe. Wolfe called city involvement in the matter “inappropriate,” but his no vote was the only one.

Three years later, in June 2013, Cooch had reconfigured and threatened the state Board of Health into giving him the draconian regulations he wanted; the new rules went into effect; and the first clinic to fall to the new regulations closed its doors.

Game over, right? Anti-choice got its Virginia TRAP law. But they’re weren’t done. They’re never done.

A month later, the lone clinic in the city of Fairfax attempted to relocate to a new space more suited to the new state regulations. The Fairfax City Council not only denied the Fairfax clinic a permit because of concerns about the amount of parking at the site (…really). They also created, on a day’s notice, a new Special Use Permit designation for medical facilities, with broad exemptions that seemed to apply to everything except abortion clinics. The permit would cost $4800 and require public hearings and a City Council vote as a condition of operation.

Instead of relocating, the Fairfax clinic closed.

Fifteen miles away in Manassas, anti-choice crusaders took note.

On October 28, two longtime Manassas clinic protesters stood to speak against women’s access to reproductive healthcare during the public comment period at a City Council meeting. They’d done so dozens of times before, but this time, they went farther. They asked the Council to consider copying Fairfax’s new municipal clinic regulations. Zoning reclassification, special use permit, public hearings, council approval. In short: arbitrary, big-government, partisan and ideological roadblocks, not to just abortion but also a broad range of other safe, legal, and necessary reproductive health and related care.

Immediately, Councilman Aveni offered a motion to do what the protesters had suggested. The vote was unanimous. And most of the council meetings of 2014 so far have had from a few minutes to several hours devoted to this issue—which, remember, should have been rendered moot last year when Aveni got the onerous clinic regulations he wanted from the state.

It’s worth noting that the two clinic protesters and Aveni are all members of All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas. For bonus points, so is Delegate “Sideshow Bob” Marshall. The protesters have both been “leadership team” members of the Manassas outpost of the national 40 Days For Life clinic harassment project. Manassas 40DFL, in turn, has close ties to the “AAA Women for Choice” (…really) anti-choice crisis pregnancy center beside the Manassas abortion clinic, which is a personal favorite of Ken Cuccinelli’s, and where staff told a NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Foundation undercover investigator in 2012 that contraceptive pills would give her breast cancer (spoiler alert: no). One of AAA’s “counselors” is something of a city council regular, as well. I got a taste of how far outside the mainstream this crew is at a January Land Use Committee meeting: as the committee met in closed session, the pair from 40DFL and the AAA “counselor” spent a full thirty minutes explaining to me in the hallway that my marriage is invalid because I don’t plan to have children, and having babies is my “fulfillment as a woman” (…really).

These extreme anti-women activists are not everyday citizens concerned with women’s health. In fact, they seem pretty tight with Aveni, based on a huddle I saw them all in during a break at one council meeting. With this cast of recurring characters, the nonstop legislative harassment of the city’s present and future abortion providers looks a lot like an extracurricular church project. That’s great idea for a parish potluck, but a really terrible idea for legislative policy or for public health misinformation.

The debate appears headed for a political and fiscal quagmire, despite signs that much of the Manassas council would prefer to move past Aveni’s abortion fixation, and get on with the work of the city. At the January 23 land use meeting, the committee voted to recommend not a singling-out of abortion providers, but a long-needed comprehensive zoning overhaul. And at the February 3 full council meeting, the vote was 5-1 to accept community development staff’s recommendation for the comprehensive overhaul. Council members Way and Randolph wanted staff’s assurance that the part of the comprehensive overhaul that would answer the medical use definition question around clinics could be finished by the end of the calendar year, but they got what they needed, leaving Aveni standing alone.

Aveni, though, was visibly unhappy to lose the vote. And it seems that’s when he went into another activist huddle. A call went out among 40 Days For Life protesters to pack the public comment period of the next meeting, to insist that clinics get stricter regulations right now. A hundred anti-choice clinic protesters lined up on February 24 to speak for hours, in a sneak attack of half-truths and muddled comprehension of the issue at hand. Then Aveni attempted to call a vote on their demands: a unilateral do-over of the February 3 vote! Council member Randolph moved instead ­that the council have two weeks to mull it over. That brings us to next Monday’s council meeting—where it is crucial that pro-small-government, pro-fiscal-conservatism, pro-women, and pro-choice Virginians show up to tell them not to be intimidated by Aveni’s gang of latecomers.

Vice Mayor Harrover writes on his personal blog, “I’ve no love of abortion but this process was already in place.  It’s what the Council voted on last time around. … This [February 24] motion would appear to pre-judge the outcome of staff and legal work.  That’s got potential to cause some remarkable legal headaches.” And: “Amazing we can find money in the budget for this but not parks & rec, redevelopment or economic development.  We’re the only locality in NoVa that has none of these things.  Yay Us!” Plus, as political blogger Ben Tribbett points out, there’s very real potential for Fairfax’s hasty zoning changes targeting clinics to take that city’s whole political process hostage. This is what Aveni wants for Manassas. That, and to have the personal power to overrule the autonomous decision-making of pregnant people with the same kind of arrogant bully tantrum that he pulled in insisting that City Council re-do a vote until the results suit him.

One in three American women will have an abortion in her life: that’s 1.4 million women in Virginia alone. With just 18 clinics left in the state, many of those women have gone to, or will go to, the Manassas clinic for their abortion care.

There is no guarantee that the comprehensive zoning overhaul that we want will avoid a bad outcome for the Manassas clinic or any future Manassas clinic. But we know Aveni’s rush-job, piecemeal attack will be bad. A Special Use Permit puts any clinic one city council vote away from a shutdown. And if Aveni can airlift a crowd into a council meeting to demand a revote on a zoning proposal, what’s to stop him from doing the same with a clinic closing proposal­­?

Aveni doesn’t get to keep on making up the process as he goes along. Join me on Monday night in Manassas to say that six years of legislative harassment is enough.