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The Long Fight

Every year, conservative Republicans in the General Assembly move the line in their anti-abortion agenda.


In what has become an annual winter ritual in Richmond, conservative Virginia Republicans proposed a batch of new laws — 23 this session — concerning abortion. Among them are nine feticide bills criminalizing intentional injury or death to a fetus, three bills seeking to apply stringent and expensive hospital regulations to abortion clinics and one bill requiring the state to wait until after pregnant women give birth before executing them for capital crimes.

Marshall and Byron introduced bills to prohibit state schools from dispensing emergency contraception (aka “baby pesticide” and “sex pills”) and to require anyone else prescribing them to minors to get parental consent first. And under bills proposed by Black and Sen. Ken T. Cuccinelli, R-Centreville, “unborn” children will receive pain medication “suitable for patients undergoing amputation.”

Since 2001, legislators have passed laws mandating counseling and a 24-hour waiting period, parental notification and parental consent. Last year, they passed a “partial-birth infanticide” bill banning a rarely used procedure the gory details of which the bill’s proponents have described repeatedly for several sessions. A federal judge has since ruled that the law is unconstitutional.

The centerpiece of this year’s anti-abortion legislative agenda has been the feticide bill, also known as Connor’s Law after the unborn child of pregnant California murder victim Laci Peterson. The measure, which has been approved by veto-proof margins in both houses, defines the killing of the “fetus of another” as murder punishable by as much to 40 years in prison.

Opponents point out that at least three state laws already provide for the prosecution of those who kill or injure pregnant women or their fetuses. “Connor’s law,” they maintain, is simply part of a conservative master plan to effectively end abortion access in Virginia.

“When they first started all this, the issue was parental notification,” recalls Katherine Waddell, a lifelong Republican who founded the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition of Virginia in 2003.

“And then last year it was parental consent and partial birth. This year, it’s regulating clinics and anesthetizing the fetus, and now they’ve gotten onto birth control,” she says “They think ordinary birth control is a form of abortion. Where is it all going to end? I think we all know the answer. They won’t stop until they have eliminated access to abortion in this state.”

When she realized this several years ago, Waddell says, she was forced to reconsider her role as a GOP cheerleader.

“I’ve been a Republican all my life, and I was very active in helping to get people elected,” she says. “But then I just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I was watching our people support every restriction from parental consent to 24-hour waiting periods, and I could see they were never going to be satisfied. … that each year, they would just want more and more.”

The situation has also inspired Patricia Beninato to action. Three years after moving to Virginia, Beninato founded, a Richmond-based Web site posting stories by women who have undergone abortions and do not regret the decision. Beninato, 37, began the site last year.

“I was always passionately pro-choice, but I was never moved to activism until I came here,” she says. “I don’t see why there is this never-ending battle to ruin women’s lives. … My feeling is that abortion is a very personal decision, and you never know what you are going to do until you are faced with it. I’ve known pro-choice women who decided they could never get an abortion and pro-life women who made an appointment right away. My view is, until it happens to you, shut up.”

Since its inception in January 2003, has attracted more than 30,000 visitors, Beninato says. Last month, it was the subject of a column in The Nation advocating a campaign to designate the Jan. 22 anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade as “I’m Not Sorry Day.”

“People are going to choose abortion no matter what bills they pass,” Beninato says. “It’s just a matter of how much it’s going to cost and how difficult we’re going to make it.”

Back at the General Assembly, lawmakers supportive of abortion rights have introduced only four bills this session. One, proposed by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, D-Arlington, defined contraception and provided that “contraception does not constitute abortion.” Foes of the measure tried to amend Whipple’s definition in committee to exclude all birth control methods that prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus. In the end, the bill was tabled until 2005.

Another bill regarded as pro-choice would have required the Board of Education to mention emergency contraceptives in “family life educational materials” about sexual assault. But an amendment on the floor of the House of Delegates removed the reference to emergency contraceptives and required instead that the materials contain information about “steps to take to avoid sexual assault.”

That incident drove Waddell especially crazy. “I can see it now,” she says. “Don’t wear short skirts.”

One side effect of all this legislation has been a governing body awash in the language of gynecology. Ovulation, implantation, fertilization, sexually transmitted diseases, progesterone levels, rapes resulting in pregnancy and “recreational sex” all came up during a Senate Education and Health Committee hearing on Marshall’s contraception bill last week. “What is the time frame after intercourse that the sperm meets the ovum?” Sen. William C. Mims, R-Leesburg, asked at one point.

Marshall’s bill was passed by indefinitely, but Marshall himself remained unfazed.

“Do I have a long-term strategy?” he said as he packed up his papers. “Yes, I have a long-term strategy. My strategy is that everybody is worth something. … That’s my long-term strategy.” S

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