Women’s health rights may be moving forward, but the battle is far from over

The following op-ed was written for “The Breeze” by Sarah Hogg, Fall 2014 Choice Out Loud Campus Representative at James Madison University. Feel free to email Sarah or connect with her on Twitter @SarahLovely.

It is no secret that women’s health rights, specifically abortion rights, are heavily debated within the United States. This summer saw two anti-woman, anti-choice wins in the landmark Hobby Lobby and McCullen v. Coakley Supreme Court cases. However, the abortion debate isn’t just in Washington D.C. in the Supreme Court or in Congress—it’s also happening right here in our backyard. Virginian women have dealt with extreme opposition to abortion, birth control, and general healthcare for many years, a battle that was exemplified in 2012 with the passage of Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP laws) by the Virginia Assembly. The Virginia Board of Health initially refused to comply with TRAP laws, but ultimately decided to pass the regulations after being pressured, bullied, and even threatened by former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

TRAP laws impose superfluous restrictions on clinics that provide abortions and demand that they have the same building standards hospitals do, all under the guise of “women’s safety.” This is a ridiculous notion considering that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures one can have—the procedure will not become safer if it is performed in a larger room or in a clinic with expanded hallways. TRAP laws are just a backhanded way to get abortion clinics to close—the extreme politicians pushing for these regulations only care about eliminating abortion, not women’s safety. Due to these costly new building regulations, some clinics across the Commonwealth were forced to close, and many more threaten to nothing is done about TRAP.

Thankfully, with Governor McAuliffe’s inauguration into office in January, these detrimental and dangerous laws have a chance of being amended or even appealed. In May, the Governor asked for a review of TRAP laws, calling the regulations extreme and punitive, and emphasizing that these laws jeopardize Virginia women’s health and reproductive rights. With the Virginia Board of Health review came a public comment period in which Virginians could voice their concerns about the regulations—and the responses were overwhelmingly pro-choice. Out of approximately 14,000 comments, 10,000 of those requested that the regulations be repealed. After the 45-comment day period ended, Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Melissa Levine announced her decision to amend TRAP laws, which is a huge step in the right direction for choice in the Commonwealth.

While Dr. Levine’s choice is certainly worth celebrating, it is important to remember that the battle for choice in Virginia is far from over. Even though Commissioner Levine decided to move forward and amend the laws, this is only the first step. Now, the Virginia Board of Health must vote on whether to accept her recommendations during its December 4th meeting. This great decision still does not erase the ugly history of extreme, anti-woman conservatism in Virginia, and does not make up for the anti-choice laws still on the books in the Commonwealth. It will take many years to undo the damage done by far-right politicians such as former Governor Bob McDonnell and former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, without whom TRAP laws may not even exist in the first place.

VA Health Commissioner decides to amend dangerous TRAP restrictions!

By Nicole Linder, Fall 2014 Advocacy & Communications Intern. Connect with Nicole at @NALinder or nicole@naralva.org.

Virginia Commissioner of Health Dr. Marissa Levine gave her two-cents about the medically unnecessary restrictions on Virginia women’s health centers, known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws.

On October 1st, the commissioner announced her decision to amend the restrictions that have put numerous health clinics out of business and, more importantly, thousands of Virginia women in jeopardy.

Levine’s decision comes almost five months after Governor McAuliffe ordered an official review of Virginia’s abortion clinic regulations.

McAuliffe was quoted in the Huffington Post saying he was, “concerned that the extreme and punitive regulations adopted last year jeopardize the ability of most women’s health centers to keep their doors open and place in jeopardy the health and reproductive rights of Virginia women.”

In the months since the Governor’s review was ordered, thousands of Virginians has expressed their concerns about TRAP and the need for revision. Commissioner Levine, herself, received more than 10,000 comments on the issue with 80 percent of them in favor of an amendment.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia– along with our friends at ProgressVA, ACLU of Virginia and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia– delivered 4,844 anti-TRAP comments to the Virginia Department of Health back in July.

Although we at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia are pleased with Commissioner Levine’s decision to amend TRAP, there is still a long road ahead before we can say that all women’s health centers in Virginia are protected.

The Board of Health must now vote on whether or not to accept the Commissioner’s recommendations and start the amendment process. During this decision, it’s crucial for all Virginians to speak out against TRAP and speak up about protecting women’s healthcare services.

Please share the following photo and use the hashtag #scrapTRAP when commenting on the issue.

Thank you, Commissioner Levine!

Thank you again, Commissioner Levine for deciding that it’s time to #scrapTRAP!

September Update from the University of Richmond

By Kristen Gell, Fall 2014 Choice Out Loud Campus Representative at the University of Richmond. Connect with Kristen and the Students United for Reproductive Justice (SURJ) crew on Facebook!

I am so excited to be the new Choice Out Loud campus representative at the University of Richmond! And so far, things have been going very well!

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Gearing up for SpiderFest, where we talked with students about ways to get involved both on campus and in the Richmond community!

Earlier this month, we were involved in SpiderFest, an event in which students can network with leaders from various clubs and organizations on

campus and learn how to get involved.

We were able to recruit many new students and are thrilled to see how much our numbers have grown in the three years I have been a student at this university!

We have many fun plans for the fall semester, including a film screening, clinic escorting, and the installment of monthly zines!

These short info graphics will be distributed to the student population here at UR and give students a taste of what events are going on around campus with respect to reproductive justice issues as well as inform them of the actions of politicians and activists in the field.

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As part of the Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, we filled our student forum with facts and statistics about abortion in the middle of the night so that students would see them on their way to class the next day. Unfortunately, it rained, but many students still caught a glimpse in the morning!

We hope these zines will be a fun and effective way to make information readily available to a wide population.

With the help of NARAL and the Choice Out Loud campaign, it seems this upcoming semester will be successful in raising awareness to reproductive health issues and curbing the stigma that is associated with these topics.

September with William and Mary’s Voices for Planned Parenthood

By Jenny Rossberg, Fall 2014 Choice Out Loud Campus Representative at the College of William and Mary. Connect with Jenny at vox@email.wm.edu.

VOX Tabling

From left to right, Jenny Rossberg, Daisy Horning, Rachel Cook, Taylor Medley, and Haley Arata stand in front of the VOX table at the William and Mary Activities Fair.

William and Mary’s Voices for Planned Parenthood club, or VOX, had a very productive pro-choice month. Starting with the Activities Fair at the beginning of the semester, we’ve been working hard to recruit new students to participate in VOX. VOX has a lot of new members this year including freshmen, transfer students, and older William and Mary students who heard about the club last year and decided to get more involved this semester.

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Our award-winning VOX poster board.

The fair was a really good way to get our message out to the school. We reserved a table, set up our world-famous VOX tri-fold and had a laptop on hand to take down the contact information of interested students. By the end of the night we received over 160 email addresses!

After our successful tabling at the Activities Fair, VOX has tabled twice outside of the Sadler food court on campus. Normally we hand out condoms and information about Planned Parenthood and NARAL, as well as general information about sexual health and STI prevention.

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One of our newest members, Erin Wall, helped out at our VOX table in the Sadler Center.

Last Friday, we also put out voter registration forms in honor of National Voter Registration Day and registered several students. We got awesome new condoms, pens, buttons, and information from NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia that were super popular among the students.

In addition to our bi-monthly tabling events, VOX holds a weekly meeting every Monday at 8 PM in which members discuss current events pertaining to pro-choice activism and ideas for activism on campus.

In our first meeting we discussed the state of women’s reproductive rights in Virginia and what issues members thought the club should target this year.

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Some of our VOX members making genital pops!

Members generally agreed that we should raise awareness about the deception of Crisis Pregnancy Centers, reach out to more men, and try to normalize and personalize stories about abortion. We’ll also be campaigning for pro-choice candidates in the upcoming elections this fall.

Taking a break from our more serious meetings, however, VOX spent the third Monday this September making chocolate pops shaped like penises and vaginas. We plan to sell these fun treats at our next tabling event to raise money for our club and awareness about sexual health on campus. Trying to melt chocolate in the single, dingy microwave we had was a bit of a challenge, but in the end they turned out looking great!

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The chocolate penises turned out especially well.

VOX is looking forward to a few larger events later this semester. Some of our club members are heading to Richmond this weekend to participate in a clinic defense. We are also hoping to help table with NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia at a Farmer’s Market later this fall!

Overall, the semester is already off to a great start.

Cosmopolitan Endorses Foust!

By Nicole Linder, Fall 2014 Advocacy & Communications Intern. Connect with Nicole at @NALinder or nicole@naralva.org.

Last night Cosmopolitan Magazine rolled out the latest endorsements in their ongoing #CosmoVotes campaign, an amazing new effort encouraging women to get to the polls this November. We were SO excited to see that they endorsed John Foust, a pro-choice candidate running in Virginia’s 10th Congressional district!Endorses-3

In the article, Cosmo compared the views of Foust and his opponent Barbara Comstock on issues such as equal pay, reproductive rights and same-sex marriage, and concluded that due to Foust’s strong pro-choice values, “Virginia women (and men) need John Foust.”

Besides endorsing Foust, Cosmo also took the opportunity to discuss why his opponent, incumbent Barbara Comstock, is a bad choice for all Virginians.

As the female contender in this tight race, Comstock’s views, ironically, are anything but pro-women. Comstock supported a controversial 2012 bill, which required all pregnant women–including survivors of rape or incest– to undergo a mandatory ultrasound before receiving an abortion.

Calling them her “common sense principles,” Comstock is also vocal about her plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act and has voted to defund reproductive resources, such as Planned Parenthood.

Besides dictating the reproductive choices and resources of Virginia women, Comstock also wants to control our purses. Comstock– and her colleagues in the House Commerce and Labor Committee– tabled a minimum wage bill this spring, a move that would have raised the base wage to $8.25 an hour and have a positive impact on Virginia women.

Here at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, we are proud of Cosmopolitan Magazine for stepping back from their usual commentary to write such a detailed article about an important Virginia race.

We stand with Cosmo, their endorsement, and their belief that, “Virginia women (and Virginia men) don’t need a representative who signs on to trans-vaginal ultrasounds and who thinks the ability to challenge unequal pay practices is a “left-wing agenda.” Virginia women (and men) need John Foust: Pro-equality, pro-education, pro-choice.”

A fantastic endorsement for a fantastic pro-choice candidate!

VA Special Session: The Battle for Medicaid Expansion

By Nicole Linder, Fall 2014 Advocacy & Communications Intern. Connect with Nicole at @NALinder or nicole@naralva.org.

The fight to expand Medicaid in Virginia is over…for now, at least.

The Virginia General Assembly returned to Richmond last week for a one-day special session to consider the expansion of Medicaid, among other issues.

Coverage Gap

Image courtesy of The Henry Kaiser Family Foundation

The proposed expansion was estimated to cover some 400,000 low-income Virginians who currently find themselves in the “coverage gap”– the dilemma of both not being able to qualify for Medicaid nor afford private health insurance.

Despite public opinion (6 out of 10 Virginians agree with Medicaid expansion) and expected economic benefits, Republicans in the House of Delegates voted against Medicaid expansion in the Commonwealth, 64 to 33.

Honk&Wave 6

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia volunteers took to the Capitol on September 18th for a Honk & Wave for Health Care!

While House Republicans were voting against the expansion of Medicaid–a move that would reject a $3.9 billion boost to the Virginia economy–we were outside the Capitol rallying in favor of the social healthcare program.

In conjunction with our friends at the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, we took to the streets for a classic honk & wave for health care. While holding our “WE LOVE MEDICAID” signs and telling lawmakers to “CLOSE THE GAP,” we received many honks and positive praises from those who passed by.

Honk&Wave 1

It’s time to #ClosetheGap!

Although the special session did not turn out as we hoped, we’re thankful for all those who supported our honk and wave and told our lawmakers it’s time to close the gap!

We also extend a special “thank you” to the 33 Delegates who stood up for Virginia healthcare and voted “yes” to expanding Medicaid!

  • BaCote (D)
  • Bulova (D)
  • Carr (D)
  • Dance (D)
  • Davis (R)
  • Edmunds (R)
  • Filler-Corn (D)
  • Futrell (D)
  • Herring (D)
  • Hester (D)
  • Hope (D)
  • James (D)
  • Keam (D)
  • Kory (D)
  • Krupicka (D)
  • Lindsey (D)
  • Lopez (D)
  • Mason (D)
  • McClellan (D)
  • McQuinn (D)
  • Morrissey (D)
  • Plum (D)
  • Rasoul (D)
  • Rust (R)
  • Sickles (D)
  • Simon (D)
  • Sullivan (D)
  • Surovell (D)
  • Torian (D)
  • Toscano (D)
  • Tyler (D)
  • Ward (D)
  • Watts (D)

As the battle for Medicaid expansion continues, we will rely on your leadership to ensure that all Virginians–regardless of incomes– have access to healthcare.

Introducing Nicole!

By Nicole Linder, Fall 2014 Advocacy & Communications Intern. Connect with Nicole at @NALinder or nicole@naralva.org.

Hello Virginians! My name is Nicole Linder, and I’m beyond excited to be working as the NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Advocacy & Communications Intern for the Fall 2014 (hooray!)!

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Nicole Linder, Fall 2014 Communications & Advocacy Intern!

Growing up in a progressive household, I was raised knowing the power of my voice and the importance of exercising and protecting my personal choices. As a recent graduate of West Virginia University (LET’S GO MOUNTAINEERS!), my interests in the pro-choice and women’s rights movements developed throughout my collegiate career.

To me, the choice/life argument should not be an issue. Women everywhere should be able to learn the truths about sex, talk to their doctors about safe contraception, or access abortion services without debate or shame.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

It is with this discouraging reality that I joined NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. I believe that all women–and all humans for that matter–should be in control of their bodies, their decisions, and their lives. Whatever the choice, it’s important for women to stand up to for the right to make their own decisions.

I’m looking forward to starting this new chapter with NARAL and standing up for all Virginia women!

Well, that’s enough about me! I would love to hear from our NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia followers. Please feel free to contact me and share your stories & beliefs at Nicole@naralva.org.

Cheers! :)

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.