Current Situation: Although the Roe v. Wade landmark supreme court case took place over 40 years ago, abortion is still a highly debated civil rights issue in American and Virginian politics. Pro life and pro choice activists continue to spar over the perceived benefits and risks of increased access to abortion, and multiple pieces of legislation relating to the topic of abortion are presented in both the Virginia General Assembly and the United States Congress every year.
Abortion is a highly controversial and sensitive topic, and abortion activists on both sides of the aisle have found it hard to achieve common ground on legislation.
Virginia Mercury, – October 5, 2020
If state legislators didn’t already know about the birds and the bees, by the end of last week, they definitely knew about the BrdsNBz — a national sexual health textline rolled out in Virginia last year.
The program became an unexpected highlight of the General Assembly’s budget discussions after Republicans in the House and Senate drafted last-minute floor amendments to prohibit state expenditures on the textline, which is currently funded through federal grants for maternal and child health services. While BrdsNBz launched in October 2019, the Virginia Department of Health kicked off a postcard awareness campaign last month — catching the attention of legislators in districts that received the mailers.
The program, developed and administered by the American Sexual Health Association through a contract with the VDH, is intended to give teens a chance to ask potentially embarrassing questions to a trained health educator. Common questions listed on the national BrdsNBz webpage include issues from dating and relationships (“What do I do if my friend likes the same person as me?) to contraception and pregnancy (“Can condoms get inside my uterus?”).
VDH also used federal grant funding intended for abstinence-only education to fund the awareness campaign for the program. This attracted the ire of Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, whose unsuccessful amendment would have gone even further by requiring any responses from the textline to “only include information on the benefits of voluntarily refraining from sexual activity.”
“I’ve been very supportive of sex education for many, many years, but I do not believe that anybody should send a flyer to a young person and encourage them to text them all their questions,” Newman said during a floor debate on Thursday. Other Republican lawmakers — including Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, who sponsored a similarly unsuccessful amendment in the House — had similar concerns that the awareness campaign and the textline itself violated parental rights by potentially exposing teens to information on sexual identity or abortion.
“Bringing in an anonymous outside voice that may not adhere to a family’s convictions and beliefs is just wrong,” she said before a House vote on the amendment. “A vote to pass this amendment by is a vote to put an anonymous stranger in charge of our children’s sexual education.”
Fred Wyand, ASHA’s director of communications, wrote in a Friday email that the organization’s responses are based on guidance from scientific advisors, which include the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The textline refers users to medical professionals for questions on diagnosable conditions, including sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, but Wyand said the goal is to provide an alternative to information online, which can be “confusing and often misleading.”
“The value we see in the BrdsNBz service is we respond to users with vetted, reliable sources of information,” he added. “We also offer gentle encouragement to users that they turn to a trusted adult for guidance, specifically parents and medical professionals like school nurses.”
Still, in some cases, conservative legislators used the floor session to float more nefarious theories about the textline, which is used in at least seven other states. Four more, including Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota and Rhode Island, offer similar services, according to VDH.
“I can tell you who would love to have a job with this company,” Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, said Thursday. “Every child sexual predator, even the ones we just recently paroled. … We’ve just provided a dream job for child sexual predators.”
Byron, an outspoken opponent of abortion, had previously suggested that the textline was being used as propaganda by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration and the General Assembly’s new Democratic majority.
“No longer content to indoctrinate our college-aged students, the government appears intent on feeding the values of the extreme left to our children at a very young age,” she said during a House session last week.
“And knowing this governor and the agenda of the Democratic majority, I fear this is just the beginning of many things to come,” she added.
If Democratic legislators could text a response, it would be that BrdsNBz is really NBD. Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun, pointed out Thursday that VDH has a list of commonly asked questions on its website that address many of her colleagues’ concerns.
From Oct. 1, 2019 to Aug. 31, 2020, the textline only received 295 messages from 98 individuals in Virginia, according to VDH spokeswoman Maria Reppas. But “ASHA has reported a large increase in texts in September following the postcard mailing,” she added in an email, “and VDH is waiting on September’s monthly utilization report.”
According to the department, all of ASHA’s health educators have at least a bachelor’s degree and several years of background in education or health-related fields. “All health educators undergo background checks before they are hired,” the website reads.
As for the postcard campaign, VDH says it targeted households with children between 13 and 17 and 18 to 19 year-old young adults in counties with the highest teen pregnancy rates in Virginia — a total of total of 95,956 households across the state. The decision to launch the textline was driven by a recent needs assessment conducted by the department, which found that only half of sexually active teens and young adults reported using condoms.
“Even less reported using other forms of contraception,” the department reported. “Furthermore, in this needs assessment, young people expressed a desire for more readily available, accurate and inclusive sexual health information.”
VDH pays ASHA $1,500 a month in federal funding to administer the program, according to Reppas. The total cost for running the textline since 2019 has been $16,500, plus $39,814.88 in printing and postage for the postcard awareness campaign — a total of $56,314.88. No state money has gone to BrdsNBz, she added.
The program has been a mainstay even in some states run by conservatives. First developed by a North Carolina nonprofit in 2009, BrdsNBz was run by the same group, now called SHIFT NC, until it was taken over by ASHA in 2018. It remained even after Republicans gained majority of the state’s House and Senate in 2010.
Democratic majorities in the Virginia House and Senate voted down the budget amendments that proposed limiting the program.
Virginia Mercury, – July 1, 2020
By Jamie Lockhart
It’s been horrific to watch politicians across this country use the COVID-19 global pandemic as a vehicle to ban abortion and restrict access to reproductive health care. When the pandemic first hit, seven states included abortion bans in their COVID-19 emergency orders –– making abortion inaccessible for thousands during a pandemic. And as some state legislatures return to work now, the first item on the docket for politicians in Iowa, Mississippi and Tennessee has been to try and ban abortion.
But it’s not all bad news for reproductive health care and rights. On Monday, the Supreme Court sent a resounding message to politicians all across the country: Stop trying to make abortion inaccessible. And in Virginia, today, our state will roll back decades of roadblocks that anti-abortion politicians put in place.
These huge victories for reproductive health care could not come at a more important time, as the impact of abortion restrictions were even more dangerous for Virginians during the global pandemic.
Before July 1 in Virginia, those who made the decision to end their pregnancy were forced, by law, to a 24-hour mandatory waiting period. This may not sound so restrictive on its face –– but imagine if you live over an hour away from the closest abortion provider. This politician-imposed waiting period would force you to either make two, hour-plus long round trips on back to back days, or book a hotel room. Both require money, time off of work, and a lot of travel during a global pandemic.
No medical professional would prescribe that.
And, to be clear, these restrictions disproportionately impact people of color and people earning low incomes. Racism is a public health crisis, and it can be as overt as police brutality or as subtle as state-sanctioned, anti-abortion restrictions that disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities.
And it doesn’t end there. Before July 1, patients seeking abortion care were forced, by law, to have a mandatory, medically unnecessary ultrasound and undergo biased “counseling,” for the sole purpose of shaming them. This was not prescribed by any health care provider — but rather by anti-abortion laws in our commonwealth.
But starting July 1, thanks to so many advocates in the reproductive health and rights movement and champions in the state legislature, that’s all going to change. Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly was finally able to roll back decades of roadblocks their predecessors put up for individuals seeking abortion care. By doing what is right, they have returned decisions about pregnancy from legislators back to clinicians and their patients.
Patients will no longer be forced to listen to the state-mandated, biased script that is intended to shame patients and discourage them from seeking abortion. They only need to come in to see an abortion provider one time, cutting in half the need for time off of work, child care, gas money and all of the other obstacles that prevent folks from obtaining an abortion during a pandemic. They can seek abortion care from a qualified nurse practitioner and certified nurse midwives — who go through rigorous post-graduate training and have extensive clinical experience — greatly expanding abortion access in the state. And they are able to seek abortion services from more health centers in rural areas of the commonwealth after changes to medically unnecessary regulations that limited access to abortion.
The anti-abortion movement will twist these victories into suggestions that those seeking care are less safe and being kept from valuable information. The facts are, abortion is health care and it is incredibly safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that abortion has over a 99 percent safety record. Just like any health care procedure you would receive from your primary care provider, decisions will be made by you in consultation with your clinician. Removing these onerous restrictions simply affirms that abortion is essential, time-sensitive health care that should be delivered without restrictions or delay.
No matter where we land on our support for abortion rights in the spectrum of justice, we must all agree that it is critical for people seeking abortion care to have medically accurate information about their health and the health of their families.
Virginia is poised for the largest expansion of reproductive health care access in Virginia in decades. But there is more work to be done to ensure everyone has access to abortion care. Virginia can lead the way.
Jamie Lockhart is executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia.
Virginia Mercury, – February 13, 2020
More than a year has passed since video of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, attempting to explain her ultimately unsuccessful, controversial late-term abortion bill ignited a furor. But outrage was still fresh at Virginia’s second March for Life rally, where many anti-abortion activists cited the legislation as their reason for attending.
“It’s infanticide,” said Noreen Rodgers, who traveled from Virginia Beach to attend the march for the second year in a row. “We hate the governor and we hate the policies he’s pushing.”
Bryant was specifically referring to a firestorm of criticism that erupted last year after Tran told a House committee that her bill would allow a woman to receive an abortion even up to the point when she is about to give birth. Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatrician, added to the controversy when he tried to describe what would happen after a woman with a nonviable pregnancy went into labor.
Tran later said she misspoke, while a Northam spokeswoman said the governor’s words had been twisted by Republicans. But opponents at the rally said the incident proved abortion was becoming increasingly normalized in the state Capitol.
“It’s become too casual,” said Frank Rodgers of Virginia Beach who joined his wife at the rally. “It’s becoming accepted, even though a lot of us know it’s still wrong.”
Anger over the incident wasn’t enough to draw the same crowds as last year’s rally, which an estimated 6,500 people attended. Capitol Police were holding off on “hard estimates” this year, spokesman Joe Macenka wrote in an email, but said the initial crowd numbered about 1,000 before it quickly dissipated outside the Capitol as rain began to fall.
Speakers still congratulated the hundreds who gathered under umbrellas to protest efforts to loosen restrictions on the procedure. Many said there was a renewed urgency to rally after Democrats assumed the majority in both the House and Senate.
“We’re not worried about rain, are we?” said Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford. “That’s the least of our problems today.”
Like many other speakers, she urged the crowd not to lose sight of current legislation — passed by the House and Senate in late January — that would roll back requirements for an ultra-sound and a 24-hour waiting period prior to an abortion.
The bills would also strike restrictive building code requirements that threatened to shut down many clinics by mandating hospital-style standards including wider hallways and doorways. The state Board of Health never fully implemented the requirements, but they were heavily criticized by pro-choice groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which argue the laws do nothing to protect women’s health.
The Senate bill would add nurse practitioners to the list of providers able to perform abortions. The House version would also add physician’s assistants and certified nurse midwives.
Supporters argue the new regulations would expand access to abortions, reflecting a six-year research study that found the procedure was just as safe when performed by those providers. But critics at the rally railed against the legislation, calling it dangerous for women.
“These are two bills that essentially decrease the requirements for women’s health in the name of abortion access,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the national March for Life. She urged marchers to text a hotline that would allow them to send messages to their state delegate and senator about the legislation.
“The good news is that Virginia has elections every year,” Mancini said. “And we need to take back the General Assembly in November.”
The next elections for Virginia’s House of Delegates are in 2021.
Virginia Mercury, – January 29, 2020
New Democratic majorities in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate voted this week to roll back abortion restrictions the GOP put in place in 2012 mandating an ultra-sound and 24-hour waiting period.
“These restrictions were not designed to protect women, but rather to suppress their ability to make their own choices regarding their bodies,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who carried the legislation in the House. “This bill concerns an incredibly important decision that should be left up to a woman and her healthcare provider.”
Among the code sections to be struck is a requirement that women be offered a copy of the ultrasound image and an opportunity to listen to the fetal heartbeat. The legislation would also eliminate heavily-litigated building code restrictions (referred to by opponents as TRAP laws, for “targeted restrictions on abortion providers”) that threatened to shut down many clinics by mandating hospital-style standards including wider hallways and doorways but were never fully implemented by the state Board of Health.
The bills cleared the Senate on Wednesday and the House on Tuesday. They were unanimously opposed by Republicans, who passed the requirements when they last controlled both chambers of the General Assembly and the Executive Mansion — a status currently enjoyed by Democrats following sweeping electoral victories in November.
Two Democrats split with their caucuses to oppose the legislation, Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, in the House and Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) broke the 20-20 tie vote.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has endorsed the legislation.
In addition to eliminating recent restrictions, the bills would expand who can perform the procedures during the first trimester from just doctors to nurse practitioners. The House version would also allow physicians assistants, language that Democrats in the Senate agreed to strike after two Republican health care professionals in the chamber, Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, argued they weren’t qualified to handle the complications that can arise from the procedure.
The legislation does not address late term abortions — a subject of intense debate last year after a Democratic lawmaker acknowledged under questioning by a GOP leader that her bill would allow abortion “up until the moment of birth.” (Late term abortions are already legal, but last year’s bill would have changed the number of doctors required to sign off on the procedure from three to one, among other changes.)
Republicans prompted their own uproar in 2012 when they adopted the restrictions debated this week, which as initially drafted would have required a transvaginal ultrasound — something Democrats in the Senate noted during an impassioned, hour-long floor debate.
“Yes, we were on Saturday Night Live and the Late Show,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who argued the laws were not intended to protect women but instead to “intimidate, shame and harass.”
Republicans argued the existing rules are prudent, measured steps aimed at ensuring safety while guaranteeing women time to weigh a procedure that can’t be reversed.
“I can tell you personally there is a cost to a rash decision,” said Dunnavant, a practicing OBGYN. “I’ve said many times this is not like a regular procedure and there are different emotional components to it.”
Sen. Jenn McClellan, D-Richmond, who proposed the legislation in the chamber, countered that two major medical groups had endorsed eliminating the requirements: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Medical Society of Virginia.
“The consensus in the medical community is that they’re not medically necessary,” she said. “The consensus in our medical community is that they put barriers in the way.”
Abortion has been performed for thousands of years, and in every society that has been studied. It was legal in the United States from the time the earliest settlers arrived. At the time the Constitution was adopted, abortions before “quickening” were openly advertised and commonly performed.
In the mid-to-late 1800s states began passing laws that made abortion illegal. The motivations for anti-abortion laws varied from state to state. One of the reasons included fears that the population would be dominated by the children of newly arriving immigrants, whose birth rates were higher than those of “native” Anglo-Saxon women.
Pro Life Movement
In March 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump argued that women who had abortions should be punished if abortion were made illegal. Trump quickly reversed himself, but the previously pro-choice candidate had stumbled into an argument that pro-life advocates have studiously avoided over the last forty years for fear of being labelled antiwoman. Some social observers looked at such statements and wondered if they signaled the declining importance of pro-life politics, and social conservatism more broadly, to the Republican party. Is the antiabortion movement no longer relevant in the United States? Those who would answer yes might suffer from myopia. In fact, the antiabortion movement, in its many iterations, has radically transformed Americans’ ideas about women’s bodies, reproduction, feminist politics, and of course, fetal life. In the two centuries the movement has existed, its constituencies, tactics, and tools have all changed.
Polls and Statistics
As of 2019, public support for legal abortion remains as high as it has been in two decades of polling. Currently, 61% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 38% say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Virginia matched the national average for support of abortion in all or most cases in 2014, with 55% of Virginia adults and 55% of US adults supporting access to abortion.
Status: SB 1451 died in Senate Committee on Education and Health, HB 2491 died in House Committee on Courts.
Status: SB 1637 died in Senate Committee on Education and Health, HB 2369 was left in House Committee on Rules.
Patron: Delegate Kathy Byron
Status: Left in House Committee on Privileges and Elections
Patron: Senator Mamie Locke
Status: Incorporated into SB 1451 and passed by indefinitely in Senate Committee on Education & Health.
Committee on Education and Health
Subcommittees: Certificate of Public Need, Health Care, Health Professions. Higher Education, Public Education
Committee on Health, Welfare, and Institutions