By Paige Baxter
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Last year around this time, Virginia was in the spotlight: Newspapers and talk show hosts, like comedian Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” ripped state legislators for passing a bundle of laws targeting abortion.
But during the legislative session that ended last month, there was hardly a peep about the issue from members of the General Assembly.
The battle over women’s reproductive health rights has been pushed to the sidelines; however, advocates on both sides of the issue have not sheathed their swords. The battle line still lies where it was drawn last year.
While anti-abortion legislation before the General Assembly drew national attention in 2012, this year was quiet: Legislation from both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” sides was either immediately killed or left in a committee during the 2013 session.
“There weren’t a lot of changes in 2013, but the changes in 2012 were very good for the pro-life movement,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
Among the slew of anti-abortion measures last session, two became law:
- A bill requiring women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion. Originally, it required a transvaginal ultrasound. But at Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recommendation, the requirement was changed to an abdominal ultrasound exam instead.
- A bill requiring clinics that perform abortions to meet the building code for hospitals. Abortion rights groups said this requirement would force most clinics to close.
Abortion rights advocates had hoped to reverse those laws during the 2013 legislative session, but they were unsuccessful. For groups like the Virginia Society for Human Life, this represented success.
House Bill 1560, proposed by Delegate Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, and Senate Bill 1082, proposed by Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Painter, would have removed the ultrasound requirement for a woman seeking an abortion.
The Senate Education and Health Committee voted 8-7 to kill Northam’s proposal. (All the Republicans on the panel voted to spike the bill; all the Democrats voted to advance it.)
Kory’s bill was tabled on an unrecorded voice vote by a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee.
The defeat of these efforts to repeal the ultrasound law was the best outcome of the 2013 session, said Olivia Gans, the president of VSHL.
“We haven’t lost any ground,” she said.
Abortion right advocates had filed 11 bills for consideration by the 2013 General Assembly. One proposal, for example, sought to define birth control as “contraceptive methods that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Birth control shall not be considered abortion.”
But most of the proposals were not even heard in committees, said Caroline O’Shea, deputy director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. She believes a major factor is that all of the House seats – as well as the governor’s office – are up for election in November.
“It seems clear that in this election year, it seems that they’ve been ignoring this important issue,” O’Shea said. “This session showed yet again that the current makeup isn’t conducive to protecting women’s rights and access.”
(Bills favored by abortion opponents suffered a similar fate during the 2013 legislative session. For instance, a committee refused to hear a proposal by Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, to outlaw abortions performed “solely and exclusively on account of the sex of the unborn child.” Another committee refused to take up Marshall’s bill, carried over from the previous session, to give a fetus the same right as all “persons, citizens, and residents” of Virginia.)
For women’s rights advocates, the fight appears to be more difficult now.
“The Virginia legislature has a long way to go before representing the pro-choice values that most Virginians hold,” O’Shea said. According to an exit poll done for the 2012 elections, 33 percent of voters in Virginia said abortion should be illegal and 63 percent said it should be legal in most cases.
According to Farnsworth, it’s hard to predict what the 2014 General Assembly will do about abortion because of the gubernatorial race. The main candidates are Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Cuccinelli, now attorney general, strongly opposes abortion. He received a campaign donation of $1.5 million from the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group.
McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, supports abortion rights, according to his official website.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.