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Virginia’s Personhood Bill: An Age-Old Battle Between Liberals and Conservatives

By Osita Nwanevu

Even after game-changing Democratic electoral victories in 2006 and 2008, my home state of Virginia can still be a potent source of distress for liberals like myself.  Recent efforts by the state’s social conservatives to move from crafting fanatical bumper stickers   (a personal favorite of mine: a picture, in stark relief, of a fetus in-utero is captioned by the words “LIBERALS, pretend I’m a tree and SAVE ME.”) to crafting actual social policy in Richmond have been especially troubling. In 2009, Republican then Attorney General Bob McDonnell, whose briefly infamous 1989 Regent University thesis claimed that working women were “detrimental” to families, won the state’s most decisive gubernatorial victory since 1961.

It was a nationally significant event: Virginia, one of the nation’s newest and, arguably, most important bellwether states, had elected a governor who had once argued that “government policy should favor married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators” on the strength of a vague “pro-jobs” platform and empty sloganeering. Given the economic anxieties of most Americans, it seemed likely that similar worrying outcomes were possible across the country in 2010’s all-important congressional elections.

Now, almost a year and a half after those feared GOP victories became a reality, Virginia is once again the center of national attention. This time however, social issues and the radical conservatism of both Governor McDonnell and Republicans in the Virginia legislature sit squarely at the fore of debate. Virginia conservatives recently joined a seemingly concerted anti-choice effort by GOP lawmakers across the country to push two highly overreaching bills on reproductive rights.

The first bill, signed into law by Governor McDonnell early this month, mandates that all women receiving abortions undergo medically unnecessary ultrasounds. An earlier version of this bill was scrapped after a national outcry over provisions specifically calling for highly invasive and often painful transvaginal ultrasounds.

The second, which would have granted the rights of legal personhood to fertilized eggs, was passed by the House of Delegates but shelved by a Senate committee until next year. If passed, this bill would potentially criminalize abortion, stem cell research, In Vitro fertility (IVF) assistance for childless couples, and, possibly, contraception in general. All could potentially be classified as murder.

The palpable outrage from state and national pro-choice activists over the measures, compounded by the opposition, according to a February Christopher Newport University/Richmond Times-Dispatch poll, of 55% of Virginians to the ultrasound bill, as well as the taking of thousands of female protesters to the streets of Richmond last month, might suggest to some that the Virginia GOP’s partial victory in this latest front of the culture wars is a pyrrhic one. However, several factors suggest that the decision by Virginia Republicans to conspicuously take on an anti-choice legislative agenda will not prove to be as damaging to their political strength as some might predict

Observers should keep in mind that even though the majority of Virginians oppose the specifics outlined in at least one of the bills, the legislative success of both measures would not have been possible had the Virginia electorate not sent such staunch social conservatives to Richmond in the first place. Thus, the drama of the past few months should primarily serve as a reminder that Virginia, despite recent Democratic victories, is still a largely conservative state. Republicans have held the House of Delegates, where the personhood bill passed by a disconcerting 66 to 32 margin, since 2000.

Moreover, the electorate, as a whole, hasn’t changed very much since 2006, when 57% of state voters ratified an amendment to the Virginia constitution banning gay marriage. And although the GOP’s success in 2009’s state elections had more to do with economic concerns than social issues, the willingness of moderate state voters with reasonable economic concerns to put Republicans over the top by voting for conservatives with wholly unreasonable stances on reproductive rights does not bode well for liberal social policy in Virginia.

The fact that support for these anti-choice measures transcended the state’s conventional political boundaries is particularly worrying. Both bills received support from representatives from my region of the state, Northern Virginia, famously excluded from “real Virginia” by then McCain campaign spokesperson Nancy Pfotenhauer in 2008 for its tendency to vote more Democratic than the rest of the state. This is proof positive that, even in fairly “blue” regions, social conservatives are perfectly capable of being both outspoken and effective in moving a right-wing agenda forward.

What has happened in Virginia can thus be read as a lesson in not only vigilance, but also diligence. As pro-choice liberals take on conservative legislatures across the country, it is more important than ever to remain cognizant of the fact that success on social issues depends on their constant presence in the public eye beyond election season.

The only way to prevent Republicans from reversing the progress made over the past half century on reproductive rights is to persistently illustrate to voters the absurdity of a political party that wishes for a government too small to deliver vital social services in the public interest, yet somehow big enough to wrest away a mother’s control over her own maternity.

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