Friday, January 28, 2011

Pro-Choice Groups Hit the Capitol and Demand Legislators Attention

Listen to the full audio here.

Two weeks ago pro-life advocates held their Rally for Life at the Bell Tower downtown. Yesterday morning, about 50 representatives from pro-choice groups set off on their annual Lobby Day and met back up a couple blocks from the Rally for Life site. They chanted their own message on E. Broad and 9th St. outside of the General Assembly offices.

A lone counter-protestor met them at their rally, holding a video camera and a handful of fliers. He had one main question for them "Are you absolutely sure it's your body?" but he also wanted to know "Why would you want to kill a baby?"

Jessd Williams isn't part of a pro-life organization. He has attended the Lobby Day Rally the last three years as a counter-protestor but this is the only time he steps out publicly for the pro-life cause. Williams said he is there to change the minds of pro-choicers he calls "willfully ignorant".

"You can be informed that this is a uniquely different DNA, different blood type but yet not see that it's a uniquely different life, different than the mother's life in which case they see no problem with abortion and killing that," Williams said.

Some rally participants wandered over to Williams to debate his points as police stood watching nearby. But most like Anna Halbrooks-Fulks chose non-confrontation. She founded the Voices for Planned Parenthood group on the University of Mary Washington campus and organized a campaign to raise awareness about Crisis Pregnancy Centers at her school. Halbrooks-Fulks explained why she made the trek to the Capitol.

"I'm here because autonomy is a very important issue to me,” she said. “I think that women should be able to make their own personal decisions about their families, the size of their families, about their bodies, about their health and I don't think that's something the government has any role in regulating."

Halbrooks-Fulks led a workshop on student activism earlier in the day and met with her legislator Democrat Senator Ed Houck of the 17th District who is the chairman of the Senate Education and Health Committee.

"He's a champion of this issue even though it's sometimes hard for him in his district and we went by and let him know there's a loud, proud group of pro-choice advocates in his district that really appreciate everything that he does," Halbrooks-Fulks said.

Joseph Richards helped to arrange some of those meetings with legislators. He is the Program and Communications at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, a group working to protect safe, legal abortion and access to reproductive healthcare. He described Lobby Day as a sort of show of force by pro-choicers.

"I think one thing that it does is it reminds people and holds legislators accountable for the laws they are passing and let's them know the laws they are passing are affecting real people and affects real access to necessary reproductive healthcare in Virginia and we will not tolerate laws that restrict access."

And Courtney Jones, manager of grassroots organizing at Planned Parenthood, said the morning started with a success. A sex education bill pro-choice groups support passed the Senate committee with an 11-4 vote. Jones said Lobby Day was a chance to meet with legislators who are not pro-choice to inform them of their views and with pro-choice friendly legislators to:

"Reiterate our message that we're here when they take goals, or votes, that their not comfortable with or they're getting pressure from the other side so I feel like it went really well this morning," Jones said.

But there are a few bills floating in the General Assembly that worry pro-choice groups. These bills could defund Planned Parenthood, re-defining personhood to begin at conception and increase regulations on abortion clinics. The day ended with a lunch where participants decompressed and strategized.

Meghan Smith, Domestic Program Associate at Catholics for Choice addressed the group at a Methodist church walking distance from the rally. Catholics for Choice is in conversation with representatives in the United States' Congress, explaining why they should vote pro-choice. She talked about the bigger picture, beyond the General Assembly and Virginia.

Smith said one of the problems groups like Catholics for Choice ran into with abortion legislation on the federal level, when abortion was stripped from the healthcare bill, was counting on legislators who generally vote pro-choice. She said if those legislators aren't engaged, they often don't vote for things they might have.

"Get your family, get your friends, get anybody. Call and talk to, do district visits, days like this are really important because there's going to be a lot of education that needs to happen and the senate is not necessarily going to save us,” Smith said. “Even the folks who are very anti-choice and very conservative either socially or politically, they listen to their constituents."

And she said momentum for small bills that infringe on abortion rights often begin at the state level and then start popping up at the federal level.

"So if we can figure out a way to kind of pull back from that maybe we can do some good and I think the state levels going to be really important, for folks to get involved when those things happen because that's the only place we have to fix them," Smith said.

And Lobby Day participants were engaging with their legislators yesterday but their opposition is fierce and the bills pro-choice advocates are worried about have yet to die out in the General Assembly.

-Caroline Jackson

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