RICHMOND, Va. — Prior to the Jan. 22 March for Life in Washington, pro-life leaders in Virginia gathered like-minded activists at the State Capitol on Jan. 8.
Virginia is a state that has seen its executive branch do a complete flip on the life issues. Before the November 2013 election, the state had a pro-life governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Now, the next four years will see Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring in charge. All are Democrats who support legal abortion.
"We don’t want this pro-abortion executive team to think it is their job to dismantle the protective laws that have been put in place by the pro-life elected representatives of Virginia — who were also put there by solid pro-life voters," explained Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life. She said the fear among pro-life leaders is that McAuliffe will target the state’s crisis-pregnancy centers in retaliation for regulations that force the state’s abortion businesses to conform to codes for ambulatory surgical centers.
Several hundred pro-life activists wearing pink-and-blue scarves met at the bell tower on the grounds of the Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 8, the opening day of the state’s General Assembly. A prayer walk to the Capitol began at 9am, starting from the Convention Center. The main event, a half-hour rally at the Capitol, began at 10am and featured Lila Rose, president of Live Action, as the keynote speaker.
Afterwards, rally participants met with lawmakers and their staff.
Turner, who was also the emcee for the event, said the shared concern among pro-life and pro-family groups is that the members of the legislature will "sit on their hands" for the next four years until Virginians go to the polls once more to elect a new raft of executive leaders.
But Virginia’s pro-life advocates have an added challenge: The state’s lawmakers felt burned after a tough battle over an ultrasound informed-consent bill that saw them pilloried in the national media.
"There was a great amount of anxiety and apprehension about proceeding with further more-protective pro-life legislation," explained Turner. She said that, after the battle, lawmakers complained that they did not hear enough from pro-life voters or receive thank-yous for the beatings they took in the media. As a result, little pro-life legislation happened afterward, Turner said, with the exception of an amendment from then-Gov. Bob McDonnell to prevent state tax dollars from funding abortion in the new health-care exchange.
"That anxiety factor has now spread to the rest of the country," she said.
Mary Spalding Balch, state legislation director for the National Right to Life Committee, said that "state legislatures have an impact on each other," and successful state legislative victories, supported by pro-life voters, can help encourage other states to follow suit. But Virginia, she said, is a legislature that gets into the national spotlight more than other states, such as Nebraska, owing to the number of reporters concentrated nearby in Washington.
"Virginia’s close proximity to Washington, D.C., makes it of prime importance when it comes to pro-life legislation," affirmed Virginia Podboy, assistant communications director at the Virginia Catholic Conference (VCC). "It’s one of the top 10 strongest states for our laws for life."
Podboy said the VCC was working to promote the rally through social media with the hashtag #VAStands4Life14, so that more pro-life activists could send messages of support for pro-life legislation to their legislators on Twitter.
"If the Supreme Court ever decides to take up a challenge to Roe v. Wade, they are going to be looking out at what other states are doing and what their laws say," she said. "That’s why these actions at the state level are so important."
While state legislation like the pain-capable abortion bans can help move the ball forward in educating the country, Balch said, the opposite can happen "when an argument goes awry," as it happened in Virginia.
In Virginia, different pro-life groups working on their own legislative priorities fumbled communications: The group promoting the informed-consent ultrasound bill lacked knowledge of a study that would have countered the arguments from abortion supporters that a transvaginal ultrasound is akin to "rape by instrument." Unfortunately, another group working on different legislation but familiar with this argument had the study that showed these kinds of ultrasounds are minimally invasive and standard operating procedure in abortion facilities.
But Balch said that by the time pro-life groups responded with the correct information, lawmakers found themselves at ground zero of national accusations that they were conducting a "war on women." Balch said it "took some time" to repair the damage, as ultrasound bills around the country lost political momentum for a while. But pro-life groups have learned a valuable lesson, and Wisconsin passed its own ultrasound informed-consent bill. "What Wisconsin [pro-life advocates] did was they got out in front and showed legislators and the media ahead of time," she said.
At the moment, Virginia’s House of Delegates has a solid "pro-life majority," according to Turner.
But the pro-life headcount in the Senate, even with some "strong pro-life Democrats," she explained, is "extremely tight," and she noted that two special elections in January would determine whether that body has a more comfortable pro-life majority.
Turner explained that lawmakers need to hear strong messages from their pro-life constituents that they have their support to stand up for pro-life laws and that, while sometimes controversial, pro-life legislative action is a political asset, not a liability.
Although it does not look likely that Gov. McAuliffe will sign a pain-capable abortion ban, Turner said, the legislative debates over the next four years in Virginia could help advance pro-life education in the United States, much like the national debates over the federal partial-birth abortion ban.
She said, "If we do that here, the education value would be enormous."