What Happens when Our Activists Knock Doors in an Anti-Choice Senator’s Neighborhood?

This past Saturday, our team trekked over 4 hours (hello, 95 traffic) down to Henrico for a day well spent knocking doors in the district of our infamous OB-GYN state Senator, Siobhan Dunnavant (R-12) with flyers and yard signs in tow. Why would we spend our weekend traveling 200+ miles, you say?

Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, in a series of curated .gifs:

Dunnavant is the only practicing OB-GYN in the Virginia legislature. She was the first woman to be chairman of the OB-GYN department at Henrico’s Doctor’s Hospital, and received an appointment to the Governor’s Board for Maternal and Fetal Medicine. She serves on the board of directors for the Medical Society of Virginia, and she volunteers with Access Now, a program which connects patients to free clinics.

It really sounds like she knows what she’s doing, as far as being a doctor goes. I even spoke with an older man in her neighborhood who told me she delivered his granddaughter. As demonstrated by her involvement with Access Now, it seems that she readily understands the real challenges people face when it comes to accessing healthcare, especially those who are low-income or un-insured.

So why does she consistently work against them as a legislator?

Elected in November 2015, Dunnavant sits on the Senate Education & Health Committee, which just so happens to be the first stop for the majority of pro- and anti-choice bills introduced in the Senate. Her first year in office, she received a 0% pro-choice voting record from NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.

She supports Virginia’s mandatory, medically unnecessary ultrasound requirement for abortion care.

In 2015, Senator Mamie Locke introduced SB53 to repeal the mandatory ultrasound law that requires women to undergo a state-mandated procedure at least 24 hours before accessing abortion. This bill came just shy of passing out of committee – by one vote. In a shameful 8-7 vote, freshman Dunnavant voted along party lines to block this bill from moving to the full Senate floor.

She doesn’t support expanded access to birth control.

I use birth control. Do you? There are 61 million women in the US of childbearing age, and about 70% of us don’t want to become pregnant. So if someone came along and told me that I could get a yearlong supply of birth control pills the next time I went to my pharmacy, I would be over the moon. Turns out, someone(s) did– first SB404 by Senator Locke and a House version by Delegate Patrick Hope. Lots of other people are over the moon for 12-month birth control, including the Centers for Disease Control and the College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, who both recommend it.

But not Dunnavant. Despite the medical community backing the bill, in 2016 she voted to “pass by indefinitely,” which basically means a vote to not vote on the bill. It’s an easy way for a doctor to defeat birth control expansion without actually having to cast a vote against it.

But we’re persistent. This year, Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn re-introduced the bill, and when it reached it’s final stop on the Senate floor, it passed– without Dunnavant’s vote. Reproductive healthcare often splits on party lines, but not this time: when voting on this commonsense, proactive reproductive health bill, only six of our 21 Republican Senators opposed it. Dunnavant wasn’t content with simply voting no, though, she was one of only two Senators who spoke out against the bill on the Senate floor, calling it nothing more than a “feel good bill.”

Now, let’s go back and talk about low-income Virginians again, just for a second. As a doctor, Senator Dunnavant should understand what her patients need, right? And if she offers free services to low-income Virginians in need of medical assistance, she should understand specific barriers for vulnerable Virginian populations, right?

She voted to defund Planned Parenthood. Twice.

We know that by preventing public funds to reimburse Planned Parenthood for (non-abortion, hello, Hyde Amendment) procedures, defunding bills like these strip away access for people who use Planned Parenthood for the majority of their healthcare needs. Last year, Virginia Planned Parenthood provided testing to 1,700 low-income women using state funds.

She doesn’t support closing the coverage gap for under- and un-insured Virginians.

There are 400,000 Virginians who would gain coverage under Medicaid expansion. When Dunnavant ran for office, her campaign website said she would oppose any expansion of Obamacare. In an interview in 2015, she said “I have never been in favor of the Affordable Care Act. As far as Medicaid expansion is concerned, I’m absolutely opposed and always have been.” Come 2017, she still doesn’t support it.

This is particularly troubling almost two years later, now that federal lawmakers have failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Governor McAuliffe used that momentum to push again for the Virginia legislature to approve expanding Medicaid, but it ultimately failed with Republican opposition.

She made false statements about long-acting reversible contraception to oppose a program to provide increased access to vulnerable Virginians.

Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, also a doctor, has long been advocating for a program that would allocate federal TANF grant funds to provide long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), like IUDs, for low-income Virginians.

While she agreed that LARC reduces unwanted pregnancies and abortions, Dunnavant spoke out on the Senate floor invoking language that suggests IUDs cause abortions. Northam later condemned her statements, saying, “It’s disingenuous and it’s offering inaccurate medical information to say that IUDs cause abortions, and we need to stop shaming women, making them think that the contraceptives that we have available in 2017 cause abortions.”

Shouldn’t someone who understands science… listen to science?

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So what happened when you went to her neighborhood?

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia activists infiltrated her neighborhood to make sure her constituents– and neighbors– knew about her extreme anti-choice voting record. And, surprisingly, we were met with a lot of support.

“Canvassing in Henrico was a very positive experience,” says UMW Campus Organizer Caroline F., “I was taken aback by the support we received.”

There was the visibly pregnant woman, who told me she’s already made multiple phone calls to her district office when I offered her the phone number. Being pregnant, she told me, has only solidified her beliefs. “This is so hard,” she said, “no one should force a woman into this.”

There was the the older woman who held back her sweet pup at the door and nodded her head in agreement with me at every bad vote I explained. “I didn’t vote for her,” she told me. I replied, “You’re not the first person whose told me that today.”

There was the man who told me he couldn’t wait to vote her out of office. That he can’t stand people who say they’re “pro-life” but don’t believe in expanding Medicaid.

There was the woman at the corner house who, as I was walking away, poked her head back out and thanked me for doing this. She told me it wasn’t easy, being in her neighborhood, but what we were doing was important.

I didn’t talk to a single person who was surprised when I talked about Dunnavant’s voting record. Most of them knew all about her, and most of them were angry. I talked to at least four people who told me they didn’t vote for her. I talked to two who wanted to get her out of office. And I talked to another couple who knew about her anti-abortion position, but were taken aback by her votes on birth control.

“They were surprisingly supportive and even passionate about the cause,” says activist Hilary M., “It was really encouraging that people seemed to be aware of Senator Dunnavant’s record, if not the specifics they at least knew they disagreed with her.”

But more than anything, I kept hearing “you know she lives here, right?”

“We do. And that’s exactly why we’re here.”

Before jumping back on the interstate for another two-hour journey, we stopped to get ice cream at a nearby gelato shop. Two older women behind us in line saw our “we are pro-choice Virginia” t-shirts and asked us what we were doing. They weren’t from Henrico, but lived in the Richmond area. One woman didn’t know who Dunnavant is. The other quickly said, “I’ll fill you in. Transvaginal ultrasound. Yuck.”

They bought us ice cream to say thanks. “I had an abortion,” one of the women told me. “I don’t regret it, and I’d do it again.”

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