Hundreds of women lined the entrance to Virginia’s Capitol last month to stare down state lawmakers debating a bill to declare that life starts at conception. That’s the kind of event Democrats are counting on to help them in November.
Former U.S. Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican who is running to return to the chamber, backs the “personhood” measure and would like to make it federal law. He isn’t saying whether he supports Virginia’s new law requiring women to undergo an ultrasound exam before having an abortion.
“He’s absolutely running away from it,” said former Republican Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginian who led his party’s campaign efforts in the House. “By refusing to say where you are, you almost get saddled with it anyway.”
The race between Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine is among the most watched in the country, pitting two former Virginia governors in a contest for an open seat with control of the U.S. Senate at stake. Democrats see proposals to curb reproductive rights as a way to drive female independent voters back to the party in the November election.
An unprecedented 1,100 such bills were proposed across the U.S. last year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that backs reproductive and abortion rights.
“I’ve never quite seen anything like this,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation who has spent the past 30 years working for abortion rights. “It’s a battle royal just on family planning.”
Even so, voters in Mississippi rejected a ballot initiative Nov. 8 that would have banned abortion by declaring that life begins at conception. A March 8-11 Bloomberg National Poll showed that 77 percent of those surveyed said birth control shouldn’t be a topic of the political debate, while 20 percent said it should.
Traci Thrash, a 32-year-old mother from Leesburg, said Allen won’t get her vote if he backs Virginia’s ultrasound requirement. “It’s crazy,” said Thrash, who voted for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008. “How can you force that on to women?”
She lives in Loudoun County, 25 miles west of Washington, which had the U.S.’s highest median household income in a 2010 Census report and is home to many of the suburban swing voters coveted by both parties. Voters in the county supported President Barack Obama four years ago and President George W. Bush in 2004. Virginia’s ultrasound law “will definitely affect my vote,” Thrash said.
“It’s the first time I felt ashamed to be from Virginia over the personhood and ultrasound bills,” said Nikki Davis, a 28-year-old parks and recreation worker and independent voter from Leesburg who supported Obama in 2008. Obama was the first Democrat to carry Virginia since 1964.
There’s a danger for Democrats in focusing on divisive social issues in an election where voters are more concerned about jobs and the economy, said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist and longtime Allen adviser.
“It’s kind of a bridge too far,” he said. “The warning to Republicans is ‘just don’t take the bait.’”
Virginia lawmakers in Richmond delayed action on the “personhood” proposal after the women gathered on Feb. 23. Opponents, including Kaine, say the measure would outlaw abortion as well as forms of birth control, such as the pill, that work by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg.
The birth-control debate reignited in February when the Obama administration sought to require some religious-affiliated institutions to provide contraceptive health-insurance coverage for women employees. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh called a female law student a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she testified in favor of birth-control coverage. He apologized, though still lost dozens of advertisers.
On March 1, the U.S. Senate narrowly defeated, 51-48, a Republican plan to let employers and insurers refuse to cover birth control for religious or moral reasons.
The debate over women’s health is also simmering in the presidential race, with Republican front-runner Mitt Romney supporting the Senate birth control bill and last week saying he wants to “get rid” of Planned Parenthood.
“There’s going to be a cultural dimension to the 2012 campaign, and it’s one the Democrats want,” said Bob Holsworth, a political scientist in Virginia and a former dean at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They really want the opportunity to highlight what happens when Republicans have control of the state legislature.”
Democrats are losing the party’s historic advantage with women. In the March 8-11 Bloomberg poll, 49 percent of women said they would choose Obama over Republican front-runner Romney, who received 45 percent. In 2008, Obama won 56 percent of the women’s vote to 43 percent for McCain, an Arizona senator, according to national exit polls.
The Virginia measures are part of a trend, particularly in Republican-controlled legislatures. Last year, 92 bills restricting abortion became law in 24 states, a record high, according to Guttmacher. All but nine were signed into law by a Republican governor.
New Hampshire’s House voted to let some employers opt out of a state requirement that employers cover birth control. Legislation to curb access to contraception also has been introduced in Missouri, Idaho and Arizona.
In Ohio, state Sen. Nina Turner took a satirical approach in her opposition to such proposals. She introduced legislation requiring men to receive a psychological evaluation before receiving impotence drugs.
“The men in our lives, including members of the General Assembly, generously devote time to fundamental female reproductive issues — the least we can do is return the favor,” Turner said in a March 2 press release.
Republicans, who gained control of the Virginia Assembly in January, have pushed a number of measures on abortion, gay rights, guns and other initiatives that were blocked for decades under Democratic control.
Allen opposes banning birth control and supports the personhood bill to let women sue if they are injured while pregnant and the fetus is harmed, spokesman Bill Riggs said in an e-mail, adding he would rather focus on the economy. Allen’s campaign has declined to give his position on Virginia’s new ultrasound requirement.
One challenge for Democrats is that some women don’t appear to be aware of the new laws. Among women interviewed in Loudoun County, there was a split between younger and older women, who were less critical of the ultrasound law.
Patricia Williams, a 49-year-old independent from Leesburg who voted for Obama in 2008, said she supports the requirement to undergo an ultrasound, though the issue wouldn’t change her vote.
Lynn Del, a 49-year-old Republican from Leesburg, denounced the government’s incursion into women’s personal lives. Still, she said it’s not a voting issue for her. “Let’s feed our children and get people off the street,” she said.
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