By Katherine Greenier, Director of the Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project, ACLU of Virginia

Yesterday marked the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion and recognized that patients and their physicians are the best judges of which procedures are medically necessary.  By guaranteeing women the autonomy to decide whether and when to be a parent, the Court advanced equality for women by allowing them freedom in major life decisions.
Last year, we saw an aggressive assault on women’s health and the rights protected by RoeIn 2011, legislators around the country introduced more than 1,100 anti-reproductive rights-related provisions, a sharp increase from 2010. Politicians seek to chip away at Roe through a variety of means, including bans on certain procedures, instituting waiting periods, mandating ultrasounds before abortions, prohibiting insurance policies in the state from covering abortion, and placing unnecessary and onerous regulations on abortion facilities.
Our representatives in the Virginia legislature are no exception. In the 2012 General Assembly session, we face numerous bills that remind us of the need to be vigilant about protecting choice.
While pro-choice activists celebrated the anniversary of Roe this weekend, anti-choice legislators introduced HB 1285 and SB 637, which ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation except when necessary to avert serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, or death, of the mother.  These bans, premised on the allegation that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, will have heartbreaking consequences for real women and their families.
Because of the inherently private nature of a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy, the high court has recognized that a woman should “be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion” when deciding whether to continue or terminate a pre-viability pregnancy.  A ban on abortion starting at 20 weeks, which is a pre-viability stage of pregnancy, directly contradicts longstanding Supreme Court precedent.  No matter the justification, it is unconstitutional.
Moreover, the exceptions provided in these bills are very narrow.  The Supreme Court has rejected the notion that a health exception can be limited to only those affecting a major physical function.
HB 1285 and SB 637 are not the only bills introduced this session to restrict women’s reproductive rights. HB 1, which grants fertilized eggs the same rights, privileges and immunities, as people, is aimed at banning all abortions in the Commonwealth.  It puts the government, lawyers, and courts in the middle of our personal and private decisions.
HB 1 lays the legal foundation to outlaw abortions in Virginia in the event of a reversal of current Supreme Court precedents, even for rape or incest victims, or when the life of the woman is at risk. Further, this bill could be used to ban commonly used FDA approved methods of birth control, including “the pill” and emergency contraception.
Under current Virginia law, low-income women may receive state support for an abortion when a physician certifies that the fetus has an incapacitating physical or mental anomaly.  By removing this source of funding from state law, HB 62 denies poor women access to safe care.
The bills introduced this session are just part of the trend in Virginia of putting politics ahead of women’s health.  Last year, during the drafting of emergency regulations for abortion facilities, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli ignored the state’s own medical professionals and pushed the Virginia Board of Health to impose medically irrelevant requirements on women’s health facilities.
Now, the Board of Health has proposed that the emergency regulations, which are the most onerous in the country, be adopted as the permanent rules.
These regulations pose a significant threat to patient access to health care.  Specifically, the time and resources required to physically alter health centers for no medical reason are likely to increase financial barriers for patients as well as reduce women’s ability to find a health care provider. Low-income women and rural women will have even less access to safe abortion care and family planning services.
Restricting access to abortion will not reduce the demand for abortion services. Instead, these measures will succeed only in endangering women’s health by forcing women to postpone receiving abortion care or seek unsafe alternatives.
As these bills and policies illustrate, Virginia’s anti-choice legislators and elected officials have launched a full-scale attack on abortion rights.  So as we celebrate the liberties afforded by Roe, we must also remember the need to safeguard them.
Celebrate Roe today by speaking out against these attempts to destroy a woman’s right to choose.
Please submit a comment to the Board of Health urging them to amend the proposed regulations for abortion facilities in Virginia.
You can also learn more about the bills affecting reproductive freedom on our website, and sign up to become a grassroots lobbyist to receive action alerts about these bills and others affecting civil liberties.