- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

RICHMOND — Pro-life and pro-choice groups in Virginia are preparing for a legislative session that will force lawmakers — most of whom are up for re-election this fall — to vote on issues ranging from access to the so-called “morning-after” pill to whether an unborn baby has a constitutional right to life.

Lawmakers and lobbyists on both sides of the issue agree that few of the bills will pass both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature, but said the debate will give voters a glimpse at where delegates and senators stand on the issues.

Delegate Vivian E. Watts, Fairfax County Democrat, said female legislators will meet again this year for a Reproductive Rights Caucus. Last year, the group warned that conservatives were eroding reproductive rights.

“The right to life bill absolutely confirms what we’re saying,” she said. “It is outlawing all forms of contraception except for a condom.”

Bills restricting access to birth control and abortion typically pass the more conservative House but fail in the Senate Education and Health Committee. Others, such as this year’s bill that simply states that birth control is not equal to abortion, pass the Senate but fail in the House.

Both chambers are expecting the same fights to surface this year. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates are open in the November elections.

Activists on both sides of the issue are planning events for next Monday, as the country marks the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws against abortion.

Mrs. Watts said many of the pro-life bills — most of which she deems unconstitutional — are being offered for politics, not policy.

“They are trying to keep the issue alive so the rhetoric continues to be divisive,” she said. “It’s to get people on record with their votes. Our goal is to educate people on these bills.”

Delegate Mark L. Cole, Fredericksburg Republican, has authored a bill that states the constitutional right to “enjoyment of life” is “vested in each born and pre-born human being from the moment of fertilization.”

Conservatives said the elections in November signaled a growing social change, and predicted abortion eventually will be outlawed.

“You can see from the presidential election that the American public are deeply concerned with the direction of our culture and they are increasingly pro-life,” said Delegate Richard H. Black, Loudoun County Republican. “A time is coming when abortion will end in America.”

A national poll conducted last month by ABC News and The Washington Post showed that 55 percent of respondents want abortion legal in all or most cases, and 42 percent want abortion illegal in all or most cases. Three percent were not sure.

Ashlie Bagwell, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood, said the last election did not signal the sentiment of most Americans. “The majority of people are pro-choice,” she said.

Mr. Black this year offered a bill that would require anesthesia for the unborn baby before an abortion. The same bill failed last year in the Senate Education and Health Committee. He has amended the bill to apply only to abortions performed in the second or third trimester.

“I don’t know of anything the Nazis ever did that was more barbaric than what we do in performing these abortions,” he said. “The fact remains the child suffers pain. For the abortionist to go into some ideological discussion is the height of cruelty.”

The conservative Family Foundation of Virginia has warned state lawmakers that they should vote in favor of the anesthesia bill.

“Legislators in Richmond should pay close attention to the messages sent by the voters in November,” said Victoria Cobb, the group’s executive director. “How elected officials in the General Assembly vote on the bills the Family Foundation supports will reveal to Virginia’s voters exactly where their representatives stand on this and important issues.”

Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Manassas Republican, has several bills limiting dispensing of the “morning-after” pill and putting stricter standards on abortion clinics.

“Our clinic is really under siege,” said Jatrice Martel Gaiter, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington D.C. “They want to reduce access to birth control and access to medically sound information.”

Miss Gaiter said abortions are on the decline with her organization, which serves the Washington metropolitan region. She said only 10 percent of Planned Parenthood’s work is abortion and the rest is about educating women to use birth control.

“Abortion opponents should work with us; we do more to reduce the number of abortions than any other group,” she said.

Miss Gaiter said the right-to-life bill is chipping away at women’s rights. “It’s just another way for them to go after birth control,” she said.

Last week, the Family Foundation said it plans to eliminate taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood.

Miss Gaiter said Planned Parenthood receives “not a penny” of state funding. One clinic receives a small amount of state funding to administer tests for sexually transmitted disease, she said.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported this month that the number of abortions in Virginia rose from 24,992 in 2002 to 26,437 in 2003, according to the state Department of Health. The figures for 2004 were not available.

A pro-choice lobby day at the state Capitol has been scheduled for Feb. 3, just about the time when the bills from the House are considered by the Senate.

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