What Happened and What is Ahead?

By Sara Cardelle

Once a year, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia hosts a Legislative Debriefing event following the General Assembly session as an opportunity for our members and activists to meet and hear from our pro-choice legislature allies. This year, we had nearly 40 pro-choice supporters, which is our largest attendance to date. The audience had an opportunity to hear from six senators and delegates who spoke about our victories and defeats and what lies ahead for reproductive rights in the state of Virginia. (Be sure to check out photos from the event here.)

For the last four months I have been watching the General Assembly and the unfolding of the anti-reproductive rights plan to attack a woman’s right to choose in Virginia. I have watched live videos of anti-reproductive health bills on the floor and heard our allies as well as anti-choice legislator’s debate on the bills. So for me, it was an incredible opportunity to hear from six of our strong pro-choice allies as they shared their stories and views from the session. I especially found it sad but interesting that only a handful of conservative organizations have the power to scare many of our legislators into never voting in support for any reproductive rights issues, and that this hold has only gotten stronger in the last year or so. It was an amazing experience to be in a room full of passionate and excited people who care so strongly about reproductive rights. I left the event feeling unbelievably empowered by all of the attendees and legislatures.

This year’s speakers included:

  • Senator Mary Margaret Whipple, D-Arlington, Senate Democratic Caucus Chair
  • Senator George Barker, D-Fairfax
  • Delegate Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, Reproductive Rights Caucus Chair
  • Delegate Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria
  • Delegate Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax
  • Delegate Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, Progressive Caucus Chair

Each speaker had a different topic, so I want to hit the highlights for me of their presentations.

Delegate Ebbin talked about how important the 2011 elections are going to be in protecting and defending reproductive rights in Virginia over the next several years. He also spoke about the current redistricting battle going on in the House of Delegates and state Senate, which, come election time, could lead to an increase in the number of legislators opposed to comprehensive health care for Virginia women.

Delegate Watts talked about Senate Bill 924, which calls for the Board of Health to regulate facilities providing five or more first-trimester abortions per month as a category of hospital. She noted new regulations could not just affect abortion providers, but also OB/GYN offices. Describing recent attacks against women’s health care, she stated that this is the “worst year that I have seen [regarding] abortion legislation.“

Delegate Hope talked about a bill he patroned this year, HB 1488, which prohibits a correctional facility from using restraints (shackles) on any prisoner who is pregnant and in labor. The exception would exclude women who are a flight risk or pose serious harm to herself or others. This bill was tabled in the Military, Police and Public Safety Committee.  Even though the bill was defeated this year, Delegate Hope stated the discussion led to a meeting he and other members will have with the Director of the Department of Corrections to get further guidance and create better regulations.

Delegate Herring spoke of one of the bills she patroned, which was HB 2436. The bill stated that any qualified health benefits plan offered through an exchange shall be neither required to provide nor prohibited from providing insurance coverage for abortion services. This bill was a proactive bill to prevent anticipated bans on private insurance coverage for abortion services. Unfortunately, her bill was tabled in committee. Sadly, we did see a ban on private insurance coverage of abortion care, in the form of Governor McDonnell’s amendment to House Bill 2434, which would have simply created the state’s insurance exchange.

Senator Whipple discussed the TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) bill and the importance of the Senate Committee on Education and Health in defeating anti-choice legislation. She stated that many negative bills pass the House, but are defeated by women’s health allies in the Senate Committee on Education and Health. Several years ago, legislators wrote into the rules of the Senate that any bills related to abortion would automatically have to go to this Committee, which has been able to defeat a multitude of anti-reproductive-rights bills (even when the Committee had a Republican* majority).

Senator Barker talked about one of the positives coming out of this year’s 2011 General Assembly, which was Senate Bill 967. This bill would have added Family Life Education to the standards of learning guidelines and required all FLE programs be medically-accurate and science-based. The bill passed the full Senate and was defeated by a tie vote in House sub-committee (which is great progress). Senator Barker noted FLE has helped reduce teen pregnancy by a large percent. He also explained how some more moderate representatives used to vote for reproductive rights in the past but are now under extraordinary pressure from conservative organizations to vote no on any reproductive right bills. The fear is that any conservative legislator who votes even once for reproductive rights will automatically have a primary challenger who will most likely beat them in the primaries. Senator Barker said that “if we were able to have secret votes on the floor of the Senate on these types of bills, then we would have 25 to 30 votes on every one of these bills, to kill these bad bills.”

I, like many of the attendees, left this year’s Legislative Debriefing feeling passionate and angry over the current erosion of reproductive rights. This is an important time for people to get angry and to fight back, as reproductive rights are under attack all across the country right now. (In fact, 916 bills dealing with reproductive rights have been proposed across the country this year alone.) Anti-choice groups are no longer looking to outright overturn Roe v. Wade because they know that they can whittle down reproductive rights through the states, one bill at a time. This is why it is so important for Virginians to volunteer for pro-choice candidates in the summer and fall and to come out and vote for pro-choice candidates in this year’s statewide election.

As a helpful guide to know how your legislator ranks, we had a first glimpse of our 2011 scorecard during the debriefing. The scorecard allows you to see how your elected official stacks up on choice. Check back soon to see the full scorecard online.

*Supporting access to comprehensive reproductive health care options is not a partisan issue.

The Panel Presents the Status of Choice

Pro-Choice Allies Speak to the Group

General Assembly Update: February 2

Happy Wednesday everyone! Welcome to this Week’s 2011 General Assembly update!

There is a lot going on this week as the Assembly prepares for next week’s “Crossover,” so let’s get right to it, starting with last week’s…

Pro-Choice Lobby Day!

This past Thursday, the Virginia Pro-Choice Coalition hosted our annual Pro-Choice Lobby Day. Despite a hectic morning of cancelled buses, snowy roads and a cancelled flight from New York, we had a great turnout! We spent the morning meeting with various legislators, letting them know where we stand on choice-related bills and other issues, and had many positive experiences. Participants noticed that when they shared personal stories legislators and their aides seemed especially receptive.We then got a chance to see SB 967, which would require Family Life Education programs be medically accurate, pass out of the Senate Education and Health Committee! After the meetings and two great breakout sessions (one hosted by our former campus intern Anna, focusing on her excellent work on CPC awareness at University of Mary Washington) took to the streets, holding signs and letting the General Assembly know that we are pro-choice and we will not tolerate restrictions on access to reproductive health! Be sure to check out the pictures on Facebook. While we were rallying, a reporter from WRIR News Richmond interviewed us about the day.

We then marched over to the Methodist church for our lunch presentation, where Sara Hutchinson, the Domestic Program Director for Catholics for Choice was our guest speaker. She spoke about the influence the bishops have behind the scenes in Congress, the national reproductive rights debate, what it means for states and the importance of reaching out to every legislator asking them to support reproductive health access. Sara’s presentation reminded us all of the importance of holding our elected officials accountable!

Everyone in attendance seemed to have a great time, and we’ll look forward to next year’s Lobby Day (most likely with plans for a snow day)!

Of course, one major point of Lobby Day is to lobby, so let’s look at where the bills on which we lobbied currently lie.

HB 2147

Anti-choice lawmakers in Virginia continue the unfortunate nationwide trend of doing everything in their power to limit or eliminate access to vital abortion care. Delegate Benjamin Cline (R-Amherst), is the patron of HB 2147, which would prohibit private insurance companies from offering abortion coverage for women. This bill would even prohibit necessary care that would protect the health and life of Virginia women. Late in the evening yesterday, the House Commerce and Labor subcommittee #1 heard the bill. After the sponsor seemed confused about how exchanges would actually work, the vote came down to a tie, which means the bill was tabled! However, as soon as we left the room, we learned the bill was being resurrected and voted on again. The subcommittee called in Delegate Bill Janis (R-Glen Allen), the majority whip, to break the tie. Unfortunately, with Janis’ vote, the subcommittee voted to report the bill to committee.  This means the House Commerce and Labor Committee could hear the bill tomorrow! If your delegate is a member of the Committee, please contact her or him and urge them to vote against HB 2147. (Click here to find the members of the Committee.)

HB 2433

HB 2433 was a bill mandating ultrasounds. It would have required every pregnant woman to undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion, placing yet another medically unnecessary, ideologically motivated burden on Virginia women. We recently learned the House version of the bill was deleted as the patron was over his bill limit. The bill has now appeared in the Senate as SB 1435, patroned by Senator Ralph Smith (R-Roanoke). The bill is currently in the Senate Education and Health Committee.

HB 1428

On Tuesday of last week, HB 1428 (known as a “targeted regulation of abortion providers,” or “TRAP,” bill, because it singles out abortion providers) was presented to the House floor. There were strong arguments on both sides. The bill’s patron, Delegate Dickie Bell (R-Augusta), described the bill as only requiring defibrillators and generators, which is false. It also imposes new, costly licensing restrictions not required of other similar medical providers! During the debate, Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Manassas) introduced an amendment that would require abortion providers in Virginia to adhere to the standards approved by a 2000 South Carolina lawsuit (Greenville Women’s Clinic v. Bryant). Republicans responded by saying that writing court decisions into the code of Virginia would be a first and could set a bad precedent. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the amendment failed. During the hubbub, choice champion Delegate David Englin (D-Alexandria), argued that a vote for the bill was a vote against women’s access to health care. Be sure to watch the video of his floor speech!

Unfortunately, the House voted to approve the bill by a vote of 66 to 33. If your delegate voted for the bill, please express your disappointment that they would choose politics over women’s health. If your delegate voted against the bill, please thank them for standing up for Virginia women and access to reproductive health care. The bill is now in the Senate Education and Health Committee.

Good News!

As we mentioned earlier, the Senate Education and Health Committee passed SB 967, the pro-choice Family Life Education bill patroned by Senator Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk).  Many organizations stood up in support of the bill, including Planned Parenthood, ACLU-VA, the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Alliance, Virginia NOW, and NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.  No one stood up against the bill! This is a victory for Virginia youth, as this bill requires Family Life Education programs to be medically accurate and evidence based! We expect the full Senate to hear the bill anytime this week, and it may come down to just a few votes. So please contact your senator today and ask her or him to vote for SB 967!

HB 2436 (Insurance Choice Act)

HB 2436, or the Insurance Choice Act, is our signature bill, patroned by Delegate Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria). This bill would maintain current status quo of abortion coverage for women in the private insurance market. This bill would maintain women’s access to vital reproductive health care! Suprisingly we did not get as much of a fight as we expected on the bill. For now, the bill was tabled, which is good news, because it means it was not defeated outright. Stay tuned for more!

HB 1488

On Friday, HB 1488, patroned by Delegate Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) was in the militia police and public safety committee. This bill would prevent pregnant inmates from being shackled or restrained during transport, labor or delivery. Other states have passed similar regulations that ensure the woman’s health and the health of her fetus. Yet Virginia continues to have instances where women are shackled and/or restrained during delivery! It defies human dignity.  The bill was passed by the subcommittee unanimously and then went to the committee right away. Unfortunately the bill was tabled after some debate. Yet on a positive note, directive for the chair, Delegate Beverly Sherwood (R-Winchester) will write a letter to the Board of Corrections to review and make policy regarding the treatment of pregnant inmates.

Whew, we know that is a lot. Thanks for bearing with us during this fast-paced General Assembly session. Be sure to keep checking our website, Facebook page or Twitter feed for more updates! As always, feel free to email us with any questions or concerns!

[Thanks to our intern Hallie for her work on this post.]