Richmond Times Dispatch Op-Ed 10/06/2022

Column: Virginia must remain a safe haven for abortion care

Christie Brooks was in her 20th week of pregnancy and elated to meet her child in a few months. Then, her doctor delivered the news: Her baby would suffer from a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a hole in the baby’s diaphragm that would cause her to suffocate upon birth. Brooks and her husband were faced with the difficult decision of whether to have an abortion because of this fetal diagnosis or let their baby suffer upon entering the world.

Fortunately, in Virginia, people like Brooks can make such a decision with their medical professionals. After June’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, abortions remain legal in Virginia. Our commonwealth remains a safe haven for abortion rights.

However, Virginia’s leadership on abortion rights is only as strong as the state legislature’s will to protect it. This ruling raised the stakes: Every Virginian must make their voice heard in the halls of the state Capitol and at the ballot box to protect abortion rights.

In the months since the Supreme Court’s ruling, Republican leaders have already announced their intent to curb abortion rights in our commonwealth. Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell, announced plans to introduce a total abortion ban, beginning at conception. Meanwhile, Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he planned to introduce a 15-week ban, which would make Virginia law match the Mississippi law that triggered the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case.

This extreme proposal from the governor would deny Virginians the right to control their own bodies and make health care decisions in consultation with their trusted medical provider. The 20-week anatomy scan ultrasound is often the first opportunity to see if something is going seriously wrong with a pregnancy — such as Brooks’ baby’s diagnosis of a congenital diaphragmatic hernia. Often, expecting parents seek a second opinion, which takes additional time.

Youngkin’s proposal would take the decision away from people like Brooks facing heartbreaking diagnoses for their children after the 20-week ultrasound. I encourage Youngkin to talk to the many Virginians I’ve heard from who would have their rights taken away by the government under his proposal.

These proposals also represent a reversal for Youngkin and Republican leaders. Republicans admit that their 2021 elections were not a mandate to change Virginia’s abortion laws.

Youngkin did not even mention his stance on abortion on his campaign website. House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in November that he didn’t plan to make abortion restrictions a priority item: “You didn’t hear our caucus running on those things,” he said. “To make our schools better, to make our streets safer, to make life more affordable for Virginians — that’s what we ran on.”

Now, with Roe overturned, Republicans are putting extreme abortion bans on their agenda. There is real electoral peril in doing so.

Gov. Bob McDonnell — the last Republican governor — suffered significant backlash for his abortion restrictions, including mandatory ultrasounds, forced waiting periods and targeted laws restricting abortion providers. After those laws, Republicans did not win a statewide election for nearly a decade.
And these new proposals are opposed by a wide majority of Virginians. In a poll by The Washington Post taken just days before Youngkin’s election, just 23% of voters supported implementing restrictions on abortion; 69% wanted abortion laws to remain the same or to expand access to abortion. If Virginia Republicans ignore the will of the voters, they risk a political backlash similar to what recently happened in a Kansas referendum.

During the last few years, Virginia has made significant progress on reproductive rights, which Virginians strongly support. Two years ago, Virginia implemented the Reproductive Health Protection Act, becoming the first state in the South to proactively expand abortion rights.

This law, which I spearheaded with Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, repealed Gov. McDonnell’s and other unnecessary restrictions: mandatory 24-hour waiting periods, forced ultrasounds, mandatory biased counseling and Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) Laws.
Last year, Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, and I passed a new law removing the ban on abortion coverage by insurance plans purchased by Virginians through the health exchange.

As we head into next year’s legislative session, Virginia cannot — and should not — turn back the clock on reproductive rights. Our laws should reflect the pro-reproductive rights majority in Virginia, not the restrictive anti-abortion laws in Mississippi and other states.

Virginia is a safe haven for abortion in the South — and it must remain that way. We must all make our voices heard — to elected leaders and through voting — in order to protect reproductive rights for generations to come.