by Aisha Huertas Michel, Director of the Patricia M. Arnold Women's Rights Project
reprofreedom_justice scalesAnother year and the state of women in Virginia remains the same! Though there is some good news, overall Virginia’s legislators made clear, once again, that they do not think women deserve equal opportunities.
First, the good news. We stopped several anti-women’s equality bills and passed two pro-women’s equality bills:
Pro-Women’s Equality Legislation
  • Victims of Virginia’s forced sterilization program will finally receive compensation. The General Assembly’s budget includes $400,000 for compensation to persons involuntarily sterilized between 1924 and 1979 under Virginia’s then legal sterilization program.  The Commonwealth’s dark history of sterilizing people they deemed as “lesser” individuals without consent is reprehensible. There is no way to provide adequate justice to these victims, but this is a first step. Politicians, like those who passed the forced sterilization program, should not have the right to decide whether an individual has a child. The victims of forced sterilizations were stripped of this right without their knowledge or consent, and we hope this compensation provides them with a small measure of justice.
  • Victory for Virginians who breastfeed. The General Assembly passed HB 1499 and SB 1427, which will allow a person to breastfeed in public places and any place they are lawfully present, like the café, the bank or a restaurant. Current law allows breastfeeding on any property owned, leased, or controlled by the Commonwealth, but these bills will expand that protection to people breastfeeding in non-Commonwealth controlled places.
Anti-Women’s Equality Legislation
  • We successfully preserved funding for Medicaid-eligible women who seek abortion after a physician certifies in writing that the fetus has an incapacitating physical or mental anomaly. HB 1400, the House Budget Bill, included a budget amendment that would have repealed this critical funding source for Medicaid-eligible women. By holding back healthcare assistance funds from women who qualify for them, this bill was attempting to control women’s healthcare decisions just because some politicians disagree with some women’s decisions. This is wrong – a woman’s healthcare decisions must be left to her and her doctor. Medicaid-eligible women in Virginia should not face limited reproductive healthcare options just because they are poor. Thankfully, the General Assembly listened to reason and the budget amendment failed in conference.
  • We successfully halted an attempt to ban abortions after 20 weeks. HB 2321 would have banned abortions at twenty weeks gestation, with only a few exceptions. The bill was unconstitutional, prohibiting abortion in cases where the Supreme Court has held that states may not do so, and failing to protect women’s health. The bill was intended to directly challenge to Roe v. Wade. It would also have imposed severe criminal and civil penalties on physicians for providing abortions to women after 20 weeks, except in extremely limited circumstances, effectively tying the hands of doctors, who should always be able to provide a woman the care she needs. Fortunately, a House subcommittee did not let the bill pass.
  • We defeated a punitive, ineffective bill targeting women who use drugs. HB 1456 would have authorized a local child-protective services department to perform an investigation or family assessment for child abuse or neglect in response to a report or complaint that a pregnant woman is using a controlled substance. Had the bill passed, pregnant women suffering from a drug dependency would risk losing custody of her child. Such a grim outcome would prevent women from receiving the healthcare they need and fail to promote healthy pregnancies because laws that threaten women with the loss of their children drive women away from health care and discourage them from seeking invaluable prenatal and pregnancy-related care. Medical Groups like the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Nurses Association, and the March of Dimes oppose punishment of pregnant women and recognize that drug dependency is a medical condition that responds to appropriate treatment. The House committee listened to reason and the bill failed to pass.
Those were the good outcomes, but unfortunately, there is rarely good without bad. Later this week, we will share details with you about all the good, pro-women’s equality bills that did not pass and how not passing those bills prevents women in Virginia from having true equality.
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