RICHMOND – Virginia Democrats want to keep women's health issues in the spotlight during this year's General Assembly session after their criticisms of Republicans over reporductive rights helped them score points at the ballot box last November.
On the first day of the General Assembly session Wednesday, Democrats unveiled a legislative agenda aimed at rolling back anti-abortion laws Republicans pushed through in 2012. On cue, protesters on both sides of the abortion debate gathered outside the state capitol Wednesday to make their voices heard.
Sen. Ralph Northam, a Norfolk Democrat and a doctor, proposed eliminating a law passed last year that forces women to undergo an ultrasound exam before getting an abortion, calling it medically unnecessary. Sen. Mark Herring, D-Leesburg, proposed repealing tough new restrictions that will require many abortion clinics to meet the same building codes as hospitals.
Republican leaders have so far indicated that they have little appetite for divisive debates over social issues after pushing through some measures last year. But that's not going far enough for Democrats, who want to see measures from last year undone.
Del. Vivian Watts, D-Annendale, introduced a bill that ensures any contraceptive or birth control measure approved by the Food and Drug Administration cannot be identified as a form of abortion.
"Now that the damage is done, they say they don't want to discuss these issues again," Herring said. "We don't accept that. We are going to fight to fix what they have done."
Northam is running for lieutenant governor this year and Herring wants to be the state's next attorney general. Neither of their bills are likely to get out of the Senate, let alone the Republican-run House.
But Democrats are mindful that attacking Republicans on abortion early and often helped President Obama win over women on his way to capturing Virginia in last November's election. With statewide elections looming for Northam and Herring, and a gubernatorial race that features Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an outspoken anti-abortion conservative, Democrats hope that women voters will give them an edge in the fall campaigns.
"The presidential and senatorial elections were influenced by the decisions that were made [by Republicans]," said House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville. "We're hoping people got the message."