Friday, February 23, 2007

Legislature Attacks Reproductive Rights Again

by Ann O'Hanlon

RICHMOND, VA.--Here we go again. Extremist state legislators are taking the issue of abortion and using it to distract us as they quietly impose their alarming, turn-back-the-clock agenda on women's issues.

So far, by one or two votes, most of their radical proposals have failed to make it to the governor's desk and because of this do not receive much media or other public attention. But no one who cares about family privacy or the rights of women should be complacent. Right now, one Senate committee -- a committee whose members believe that the most intimate personal decisions should be made without intrusion from government -- is all that prevents these proposals from becoming law.

If those committee members weren't there -- and one day soon some of them will not be -- many forms of birth control, including the pill and the IUD, would be subject to Virginia's strict abortion laws or be made entirely illegal. An exaggeration? Not at all. Here's why.

Pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. Ask the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, even the Code of Federal Regulations of the U.S. Government. That's the definition. But every year, the extremists who want to regulate a woman's uterus try to write into Virginia law that a pregnancy begins the moment fertilization occurs. Beyond that, they try every year to legally define that moment as the beginning of life.

When and if they are successful, that moment of fertilization could be equivalent to the moment of childbirth under law. Anything that stopped the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus could be construed as the legal equivalent of an abortion. This includes the birth control pills that 12 million American women use.

So as our state legislature meets for all of six weeks this calendar year to grapple with issues that truly need government attention, such as education and transportation, some politicians have thrown the following backward-looking proposals into the mix:

* A proposal that defines life as starting at fertilization;

* A proposal to dangerously misinform our young people in public schools' Family Life Education classes, including inaccurate statements on abstinence and contraception; and

* A proposal to ban all abortions (except those where the mothers life is in danger) should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade.

The sponsors of these proposals are legislators who are rightly troubled by the actions some pregnant women take to either intentionally or unintentionally harm their pregnancy. But rather than work to understand and help such women, who may have mental illness or an addiction and nowhere to turn to for help, the proposals would instead intensify the charges and punishments exacted upon these women.

What we need are bills that increase prenatal care for women in poverty and enhance substance abuse screening of all pregnant women with follow-up care if appropriate, or at the very least require treatment or counseling for the woman in conjunction with her court-ordered punishment.

So while these extremists in Richmond constantly use that divisive word -- abortion -- as their bumper sticker and their public face, make no mistake, what they are working on is an intrusion into more than just a woman's privacy, it is an intrusion into family privacy and family choices concerning birth control.

O'Hanlon is the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.