By: Louise Melling, Director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project Kent Willis, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia
Imagine living in a country where government policies and mandates decide if and when you can have children. Now imagine that country as your own.
“It can’t happen here,” you protest. “It’s nobody else’s business and certainly not the government’s what I do in my bedroom.”
Unfortunately, for many women in Virginia and across the country, this imaginary scenario is already reality. If lawmakers have their way, more and more women will be thwarted in their efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to obtain an abortion if and when they need one.
Despite its conservatism--or perhaps because of it-- Virginia held out against the first major wave of assaults against reproductive freedom in the early 1990s. At that time, political conservatism still meant limiting the role of government and keeping it out of places where it didn’t have any business--such as the wholly personal space where a woman and her chosen advisors decide whether or not she should keep an unwanted pregnancy.
The changing of Virginia’s political guard in the late 1990s meant replacing traditional conservatives with new conservative ideologues who have engineered an unprecedented assault on reproductive rights. Since that time the Virginia General Assembly has passed a half dozen laws restricting reproductive rights.
And there seems to be no end in sight. In 2003, Virginia’s legislators introduced more than two dozen new measures intended to limit reproductive freedom. They passed a bill requiring parental consent for minors seeking an abortion. The House of Delegates approved three bills that were only kept off the law books by cooler heads in the Senate. One would have required health service agencies to notify parents when their minor children sought certain kinds of kinds of contraception. Another would have allowed health care professionals personally opposed to abortions to refuse to dispense emergency contraception. A third would have, in effect, made it too expensive to operate abortion clinics in Virginia.
In just the first week of the 2004 General Assembly session, there are already fifteen similar bills.
Last year, for the first time, the federal government enacted a measure, the so-called “partial-birth abortion” ban, aimed at severely curtailing women’s ability to obtain abortions after the first trimester of pregnancy. This deceptively named ban, also enacted in Virginia , leaves doctors at risk of criminal prosecution every time they perform an array of safe and common abortion procedures, including the one used in more than 90 percent of abortions in the second trimester.
Because of legal challenges, the courts have blocked enforcement of this ban while the cases proceed. For now, at least, women seeking second trimester abortions -- because of health conditions, because their fetus suffers from a grave condition, or because of delays imposed by unreasonable laws and regulations -- can still obtain them knowing that their doctors can treat them according to their best medical judgment.
Whatever the outcome of the legal challenges, anti-abortion activists at both the federal and state level are poised to set up greater roadblocks for women in need of basic reproductive health care, making not only abortion out of reach, but severely limiting women’s access to family planning services and increasing spending on unproven and reckless sexuality education programs.
In a few months, we will have a special opportunity to stand up and collectively say: Women’s health and lives will not be collateral damage in the ever-escalating political assault on reproductive rights. On April 25, thousands of organizations and individuals will participate in the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, DC. At what is expected to be the largest demonstration for reproductive rights in this country’s history, women from across the nation will be demanding that the government stay out of their private lives.
Thirty-one years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that a woman’s ability to choose abortion was fundamental. Without access to abortion and other essential reproductive health services, women cannot fully participate in the workforce or in the political arena, or make responsible choices for themselves and their families.
It is time to recommit ourselves to protecting women’s lives and rights by committing ourselves to marching in April. The right to make decisions about one's private reproductive life, free from government intrusion, is the foundation of liberty.
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