Part One: The Good
After weeks of hearings, debates, and protests, the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session is over. As the dust settles, we’re looking back at a tumultuous series of ups and downs (a few more downs than ups, to be honest).
We had a jam-packed six weeks. Our rockstar activists traveled to Richmond eight separate times, made 1,503 calls to legislators, attended 17 votes, and submitted or read 24 powerful testimonies. Pro-choice leaders in the House of Delegates introduced five pro-choice bills, three of which had counterparts in the Senate. Anti-choice legislators introduced three extreme anti-choice bills and an anti-choice resolution.
In this series, we’ll take a look at some of our repro health wins and losses and hear from some activists who took part in this wild ride.
Let’s start with good news.
For the first time in over a decade, the Virginia General Assembly passed a proactive birth control bill, Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn’s (D-41) HB 2267. The bill guarantees a woman access to a full 12-month supply of contraception at one time, when prescribed by a licensed health care provider. What does that mean? Rather than picking up a new pack of birth control every 30, 60, or 90 days, a woman can go to the pharmacy once a year for her full annual supply.
This is especially helpful for women in rural areas, who don’t have easy access to a pharmacy. It helps women without reliable transportation, who can’t guarantee they can make it to their pharmacy every month. It helps women who juggle jobs, school, family demands, and all the other daily tasks that get in the way of prioritizing one’s health.
“When the option of receiving a 12 month supply is available, it is less likely that women will have lapses in medication use or abandon use altogether,” says Dr. Nicole Rankins, an obstetrician/gynecologist from Henrico who testified in support of the bill. In fact, studies have shown that giving women access to a full-year of prescription birth control reduces unintended pregnancy by 41%.
The bill survived rigorous questioning in committee hearings and an amendment attempt by Delegate Bob Marshall (R-13), which would have killed the bill, before passing the House 94-1 and the Senate in a 34-6 vote.
HB 1473, introduced by Delegate Dave LaRock (R-33), never made it to a committee vote. That’s great news, because the bill would have banned abortion after 20 weeks, with very narrow exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. The bill, which criminalized abortion after 20 weeks, essentially cut a woman off from her constitutionally protected right to an abortion as codified by Roe v. Wade. We at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia strongly opposed the bill and were prepared to fight it every step of the way.
We’re happy we didn’t have to take up that fight, but this victory felt empty. In a shocking letter to various bill sponsors, Delegate Dave Albo (R-42) announced his decision to table a series of bills, including the 20-week ban, due to time constraints. “As you know,” he said, “the Committee historically kills bills associated with liberal politics, and the Governor vetoes bills associated with conservative politics.” Ultimately, he decided, there was no point in hearing a doomed bill.
Our executive director Tarina Keene said it best when she said “refusing to allow public debate makes an absolute farce of democracy.” The death of HB 1473 did make one thing crystal clear: the Governor plays an absolutely pivotal role in blocking anti-choice legislation – sometimes without even lifting his pen. That’s why we’re so committed to electing another pro-choice champion this coming November.
Included in the sweeping judgement made by Delegate Albo to shut down debate over controversial bills was HB 1762, introduced by Delegate Robert Marshall (R-13). The bill would have added more restrictions to the already onerous process of obtaining an abortion in Virginia. Current law requires physicians to give a state-written speech informing the woman of alternatives to abortion, offer state-published materials outlining those alternatives, and inform the woman of the gestational age of the fetus. Additionally, the woman must have a medically-unnecessary ultrasound and wait a full 24 hours before receiving treatment.
These procedures are meant to inconvenience, shame, and terrify a woman for seeking her protected right to an abortion. They unduly burden low-income women and women without ready access to transportation and sufficient time off for multiple trips to a clinic. Del. Marshall’s bill would have piled onto that by requiring a woman to sign a government-written consent form laden with medical inaccuracies before receiving her procedure.
While we’re thrilled this bill failed, the circumstances under which Del. Albo shut down the debate continue to trouble us. Women from across the commonwealth traveled to Richmond to testify against these two bills in an attempt to make their voices heard and sway their legislators. They were silenced, and their legislators remain obstinately unaware of their constituents’ serious concerns.
The General Assembly session is always full of twists and turns, and this year has been no exception. Del. Filler-Corn worked tirelessly to battle partisanship and sway her colleagues to support HB 2267. Together with her zeal and constant pressure from our activists and partners, we broke a decade-long streak and finally passed a smart, proactive reproductive health bill. This is AMAZING and we should all feel proud.
The two bills killed by Del. Albo highlight just how desperately anti-choice legislators want to keep Virginia women from accessing their right to an abortion. Just as disturbing is the bizarre political machination that put those bills to bed. Without a pro-choice governor like Terry McAuliffe holding the veto pen, HB 1762 and HB 1473 could become law as soon as next year. That’s right: these bills didn’t die because they’re bad, they died because Governor McAuliffe planned to veto them.
We’re emerging from this General Assembly session with a few more bags under our eyes and a lot more miles on our cars, but our successes remind us that this fight did not end with the closing of the 2017 session. Buckle up!