Wednesday, January 21, 2004

RICHMOND — Anti-abortion and abortion-rights groups are preparing for an emotional General Assembly session that will include heated debates and legislation proposed by both sides.

The battle will unfold on several fronts via bills seeking to regulate abortion clinics, protect the use of birth control and require teachers to provide more facts in sex-education classes.

Yesterday — the eve of the 31st anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion — abortion-rights advocates said conservative lawmakers are trying to limit access to birth control.

“Birth control is under attack in Virginia,” said Bennet Greenberg, director of government relations for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. “Many are blurring the lines on abortion.”

Democratic lawmakers are proposing the Birth Control Protection Act, which would stipulate that “contraception is not to constitute abortion.”

Written by state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington, the bill would define contraception as “the use of any process, device, or method to prevent pregnancy, including steroidal, chemical, physical or barrier, natural or permanent methods for preventing [implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus].”

It also would place contraception outside the realm of the state’s abortion laws.

The same bill last year passed the Senate, but died in a tie vote in a House committee. Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, supported the bill last year.

Meanwhile, a leading anti-abortion delegate said he opposes birth control, including the emergency contraceptive “morning-after pill.”

“Anything designed to kill a child, which I define as a living organism with the DNA of Homo sapiens, is unacceptable,” said Delegate Richard H. Black, Loudoun County Republican.

Mr. Black said, aside from the morality of the issue, he is concerned that birth control is contributing to a low birth rate in the United States and called contraceptives “baby pesticides.”

In addition, Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Manassas Republican, said the government shouldn’t give funds to state colleges and universities that use the money to promote birth control.

Mr. Marshall has criticized the distribution of emergency contraceptive pills to students at Virginia’s public universities, prompting some schools to ban the pills last year.

Today, the House will debate a bill that would require abortion clinics to meet stricter regulations and licensing requirements.

Mr. Marshall said he wrote the bill to ensure the safety of clinic patrons.

“Back-alley clinics have moved to Main Street with the permission of the state government,” he said, adding that he is expecting an emotional debate on the House floor. “This bill establishes standards.”

Planned Parenthood’s Mr. Greenberg said the bill would do nothing to improve the safety of abortions, calling it a “sham.” The bill calls for regulations that will be difficult to meet and is “unfair, unnecessary and inappropriate,” he said.

“If enacted, [the bill] would do more to prevent women’s access to abortions than any legislation short of outlawing the procedures,” Mr. Greenberg said.

Other abortion-related bills include measures to ban abortions after the first trimester and require doctors who perform abortions after the first trimester to anesthetize the fetus.

Two House bills call for altering how public schools teach health and family life education. One calls for “medically and factually accurate and objective information” in course instructional materials. The other would require teachers to give information on the use of emergency contraception in response to sexual assault. Both bills have been referred to committees.

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