By Samantha Kimmey
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Virginia's Women's Strike Force stands out for battling back an abortion restriction last year and taking its movement into this year's elections. But states such as Wisconsin show how the anti-abortion era remains ascendant.
Credit: Paul Weaver/weaverphoto on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)-- Katherine Waddell was active in the Republican Party for much of her life, serving on state Republican committees and working for a number of Virginia's elected GOP officials.
Now, as chair of the political action committee Women's Strike Force, she is recruiting candidates to defeat in November the 63 Virginia state delegates--61 of whom are Republican--who voted in early 2012 to subject women seeking an abortion to a transvaginal ultrasound.
"A majority of delegates who voted in favor of that bill had no opposition" in the most recent election, said Waddell. "Our hope is that we can have enough of an impact that we can defeat some of these guys" in the November 2013 elections.
For now the Women's Strike Force is focusing on delegates since senators aren't up for reelection until 2015.
A transvaginal ultrasound is performed to show an image of a tiny fetus. A probe must be inserted inside the vagina during the procedure, an action that pro-choice advocates at the time said met the state's definition of rape. It's used in pregnancies that are too early for an abdominal ultrasound, roughly during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, during which 88 percent of abortions occurred in 2006, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute.
After about 1,000 women staged a silent protest in front of the legislature in February 2012, lawmakers in Virginia backed down and passed a law allowing women to opt out of the transvaginal ultrasound but still requiring a transabdominal one.
Virginia lawmakers also passed regulations in 2011 requiring abortion clinics to comply with building rules for hospitals, such as four parking spaces for every surgical room and standardized widths for hallways. Last fall, the Virginia Board of Health voted against "grandfathering" existing clinics, meaning that they would have to make the expensive modifications or close down.
In 2012, 19 states placed 43 restrictions on abortion, making it the second-highest year for such a crop of laws. The highest year was 2011, with the passage of 92 restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at Guttmacher expects the anti-choice onslaught of the past two years to extend into 2013, with state lawmakers choosing from a menu of restrictions, which include 20-week bans, abortion medication restrictions, clinic regulations, blocked insurance coverage, mandated counseling and waiting periods.
Organizations such as the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights are fighting many of these laws in court, issue-by-issue, state-by-state.
Some issues can be impossible to litigate for practical reasons though.
The Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that states cannot ban abortions before viability, which stands at about 24 weeks. But while a 20-week ban would appear to directly contradict Roe, Julie Rickelman, litigation director for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said that many states have no providers who perform abortions after 20 weeks, so no one has standing to challenge the law.
As of Jan.1, seven states banned abortions at 20-weeks post-fertilization, according to Guttmacher.
Last week, Arkansas' House of Representatives passed a 20-week abortion ban and sent it to Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who vetoed the measure on Feb. 26 citing the question of the measure's constitutionality, reported the Associated Press. However, lawmakers could attempt to override that veto.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry in December announced his support for a 20-week ban, an initiative that Elizabeth Bennett, director of Texas Right to Life, said her organization is supporting. "Any time we can spare babies pain, we should prioritize doing so," she said.
Wisconsin is also a hub of activity. Activists there are supporting a ban on sex-selective abortion, a mandatory ultrasound bill, a ban on abortion coverage in public workers' insurance plans and a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.
"We believe that all of those measures will go forward and pass and become law," said Sue Armacost, legislative and PAC director for Wisconsin Right to Life.
On Feb. 18, the state's Planned Parenthood announced it would close four clinics due to the elimination of state funding.
Under the ongoing avalanche, the success of the Women's Strike Force in stopping the transvaginal ultrasound in Virginia shows the political boomerang that can strike Republicans who push anti-abortion initiatives that, for critics, go to an extreme.
"I can imagine that there's a lot to learn from what happened in Virginia," said Guttmacher's Nash.
The Women's Strike Force came together overnight in February 2012. Just two days before Virginia's state Senate passed the modified ultrasound law, Robin Abbot, a former Virginia state delegate, asked Waddell to join a conference call with others opposed to the legislation. The next day, Women's Strike Force had a website, a press release and coverage in the Washington Post.
By the end of 2012, Waddell estimated the group had raised roughly $175,000.
So far in 2013, two bills attempting to restrict abortion access in Virginia have died in committees: a ban on sex-selective abortions in the House and the elimination of state funding for abortions for low-income women whose fetuses have grave abnormalities in the Senate.
Republican state Del. Robert Marshall has introduced another two bills, but Waddell says legislators "might hesitate" to create another controversy during an election year.
The governor's race is expected to affect how the state decides to handle reproductive health coverage under health reform. One strong contender, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, said on Jan. 9 that he would "go to jail" to fight the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.
Waddell's group would like to see state lawmakers pass a bill, introduced by state Dels. Kay Kory and Eileen Filler-Corn, to repeal the ultrasound requirement passed last year. The group also supports a bill introduced by other state Democrats to roll back clinic regulations that could force abortion providers out of business.
While Waddell knows it may be hard to get those bills passed in the current legislature, she said the effort keeps the issue in the news, it "keeps them talking about it."
Waddell, 74, now sits on the board of the Virginia chapter of Republican Majority for Choice but her party loyalty wavers.
In 2005 she ran as Independent because she could not win the GOP primary as a pro-choice candidate -- and won a seat in the state House of Delegates where she served two years before losing the seat.
"I am still a Republican at heart but have a difficult time finding a Republican elected official or Republican candidate for elected office that I can support because they have moved so far extreme right," Waddell said in an email interview. "I have not changed; the party has."
Waddell's pro-choice GOP network at Republican Majority for Choice serves the electoral agenda of the Women's Strike Force.
Gerrymandering, or the 2010 redrawing of districts in Virginia, allowed Republican legislators to design "safe districts" for themselves dominated by supporters.
Since Democrats stand little chance in these districts, Waddell said it would "help our group to find pro-choice Republicans to run in that district."
Samantha Kimmey is a freelance writer.
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