by Aisha Huertas Michel, Director of the Patricia M. Arnold Women's Rights Project
reprofreedom_justice scalesEarlier this week, we told you about the good legislative outcomes that came out of this session - now the bad news. Legislators had numerous opportunities to level the playing field for Virginia women. With few exceptions, Virginia’s legislators failed to act and failed to adequately protect all Virginia women from discrimination.
  • HB 2254 would have protected all employed women against discharge from employment based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, including lactation. Currently, the law allows protects women from this kind of discrimination when they work for employers employing more than 5 but fewer than 15 persons, and federal law protects women who work for employers with more than 15 persons, leaving many Virginia women without protection from discrimination. The bill did not succeed.
  • Victims of forced prostitution can still be considered a criminal. HB 1596 would have allowed for affirmative defense to prostitution when the person was forced to engage in prostitution through use of force, intimidation or deception by another, but the bill failed to pass. A person coerced and forced by another to commit an offense, is a victim not a criminal.
  • Legislators failed to protect birth control access. SB 1277 and HB 2287 would have protected access to birth control. SB1277 would have protected Virginian’s access to birth control in the event the Supreme Court or Congress overturns the federal rule that requires new health insurance plans to cover birth control. Without the federal rule in place, such coverage is offered only as an option in Virginia. HB 2287 would have ensured that, regardless of an employer’s personal beliefs, an employer cannot retaliate against an employee because of an employee’s reproductive health care decisions. Birth control coverage is a breakthrough for women’s health and access to birth control is a critical factor in ensuring a woman’s ability to participate equally and fully in civic, economic, and political life. Women seeking access to basic health services should not face discrimination. Private decision making about birth control should be left to a woman and her doctor, not her boss or a politician. Religious liberty means the right to hold and preach your beliefs, but not to impose them on others.
  • The Equal Rights Amendment awaits action. SJ 216 would have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The joint resolution passed in the Senate, but failed in the House. Currently, courts apply an “intermediate” level of judicial scrutiny to laws or government actions that discriminate on the basis of sex. However, courts should apply the highest level of “strict” judicial scrutiny to laws or government actions that discriminate on the basis of sex, just as they do for laws and government actions that discriminate on the basis of race. Unless the Supreme Court itself holds that laws or government actions that discriminate on the basis of sex require strict scrutiny, only a federal ERA can provide the highest and broadest level of legal protection against sex discrimination. For yet another year, this measure ensuring equal protection for women failed to pass.
  • Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound requirement is still the law of the land. Senate bill 733, Senate bill 920, and House Bill 1524 and SB920 would have repealed in whole or in part the requirement that a physician perform a trans-abdominal ultrasound at least 24 hours prior to an abortion. Mandatory ultrasound is intended to judge and shame a woman into deciding against an abortion, but information should not be provided with the intent or result of shaming, judging, or making a woman change her mind, and health care decisions are best made by a woman and her doctor, not politicians. Unfortunately, the bill that would have repealed this requirement was left in House Courts of Justice, resulting in no change in the law.
  • Women still lack adequate access to justice when sex discrimination occurs. HB 1823 and SB 772 would have increased the amount an employee can recover as damages for a violation of the existing requirement that employees receive equal pay for equal work irrespective of sex. The bill failed in both chambers effectively halting any progress toward closing the gender pay gap. Women are a vital part of their family’s economic security and deserve to be fairly compensated. In fact, 40% of women are the primary breadwinner in their family.
  • Legislators failed to ensure insurance covers abortion. SB 769 would have repealed a law that prohibits insurance policies offered in the health exchange from covering abortion. It’s wrong for the government to take away insurance coverage for a legal medical procedure. Politicians should not be able to stop private insurance companies that want to cover abortion from doing so. A woman and her doctor, not politicians, should decide what care she needs.
As those who work to ensure the rights of women, we have faced the good, the bad, and the ugly at our General Assembly. Yet, while the Virginia legislature once again failed to ensure women’s equality, we have not given up the fight. Women deserve equality in all aspects of social and economic life. Though it may not have happened this year, we’ll keep working until Virginia’s women are on equal footing.
Want to stay informed about women’s rights in Virginia?  Continue to follow our blog, and check out our Facebook and Twitter for breaking news!  And, sign up to be a grassroots advocate.