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.