By Miriam Stiefel, ACLU of Virginia Reproductive Freedom Project Intern
As the 2014 Virginia legislative session draws near, we should expect and prepare for yet another round of legislation aimed at restricting a women’s private decision to have an abortion. While we will certainly face a difficult legislative session, women’s health advocates have much to celebrate. Earlier this week, Albuquerque, New Mexico voters soundly defeated a proposed 20-week abortion ban. Albuquerque is just the latest example of voters from across the United States voicing their opposition to abortion restrictions. In addition to these victories, we are seeing new and sometimes successful efforts to expand abortion access.
In California, AB 154 expands who can perform abortions to include nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, and physician assistants. By increasing the number of available and trained professionals, California has better ensured that its urban and rural women will have timely and local access to safe abortion. Advocates relied on two key factors to pass this law. First, a University of California San Francisco study of 16,000 patients found that trained health professionals other than physicians can safely perform abortions (a victory for evidence-based medicine given that abortion opponents often use junk science to argue that restrictions are necessary to protect women’s health). Second, by forming a diverse coalition of 33 organizations, including cultural, religious, women’s, LGBT, medical, business, and legal organizations (called the California Women’s Health Alliance), advocates capitalized on the fact that while nearly one quarter of voters do not identify with traditional abortion labels, two-thirds of voters want abortion to remain legal. Coalitions like the California Women’s Health Alliance show that advancing change is possible when advocates move beyond the “likely allies.”
On the national level, Senator Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA; SB 1696), a bill aimed at prohibiting the nation-wide wave of regulations that restrict rather than advance women’s health. These regulations, commonly referred to as Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, impose strict and costly physical plant standards on abortion clinics, require ultrasounds before abortion, and create other barriers to access. In Virginia, TRAP has been used to restrict abortion access by singling out abortion clinics and forcing them to make medically unnecessary and burdensome architectural changes. WHPA wouldn’t automatically overturn Virginia’s TRAP or mandatory ultrasound law, but because federal law trumps state law, the bill will provide a means to challenge them in court. WHPA would make it much more difficult for states to chip away at women’s reproductive rights, and would set markers for federal courts reviewing state laws, including any that may take effect in Virginia’s future.
It is time for politicians to defend our constitutional right to access abortion, rather than interfere in a woman’s private decisions. After New Mexico, South Dakota, Colorado, and Mississippi all recently rejected interference in a woman’s private medical decisions and polls show that people believe deeply personal decisions belong between a woman, her partner and family, and her doctor, Virginia politicians should recognize this trend and push pro-active policies along the lines of AB 154 and the WHPA. It’s time for Virginia politicians to stop invading the privacy of Virginia women and to instead support policies that ensure access to accurate, safe, and accessible healthcare.