Largest public demonstration at state capital in quarter century
By Zack Budryk
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – More than 1,000 people turned out at the Capitol on Jan. 20th to silently protest a wave of legislation that they claim undermines women’s reproductive rights.
The demonstration focused largely on two measures: House Bill 1, which would give the legal status of a human being to a fertilized egg, and HB 462, which would require a trans-vaginal ultrasound before undergoing an abortion.
Both bills have passed the House of Delegates and are being considered by the Senate Education and Health Committee.
“We want the state legislators to know that we are angry, and we will not stand idly by as our rights to privacy and access to health care are eroded; we will not be told we do not know what is best for us, or that access to care should be limited to those who can pay,” said Sarah Okolita, who helped organize the event.
“We will not have medically unnecessary procedures forced upon us. We will not give up our right to plan our families,” said Okolita, a graduate student in social work at Virginia Commonwealth University. “These are distractions. Virginia needs economic growth and recovery, not repressive, regressive and dangerous control over our bodies.”
Another organizer, Jordan Romeo, a global studies and international social justice major at VCU, said he hoped the rally would send a message to the General Assembly.
“We have been telling people to contact their legislators, to call their legislators, to write emails, to be a presence at the Capitol as much as possible,” Romeo said.
Eileen Davis, a health care provider, said that the wording of HB 1 had potentially dangerous ramifications.
Scope of legislation
“The law of unintended consequences is all over this bill,” Davis said. “Women who have to take birth control or have a barrier method such as an IUD because they’re on cancer treatment, according to this bill, would be breaking the law.
“This bill says that women who have migraine headaches cannot take birth control pills … This is a law that was written by people that don’t understand health care, medical care and the medical consequences of it.”
Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, the sponsor of HB 1, has disputed such comments as fear-mongering. The bill states that “Nothing in this section shall be interpreted as affecting lawful assisted conception.” (WCR managing editor’s note: Typically, Marshall’s comment ignored the issue at hand – limits on medical treatment and restrictions on birth control.)
Virginia would become the first state in the nation to approve “personhood” at conception. Mississippi and one other state rejected such legislation in voter referendums in recent years.
The demonstration began at 11 a.m. as participants silently lined the walkways on the Capitol grounds and linked arms.
Around 12:30 p.m., the protesters dispersed before reassembling at the Bell Tower for a rally. The rally’s featured speakers included various legislators, as well as activists such as Ramey Connelly of the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project and Victoria Bragunier of the Richmond chapter of the National Organization for Women.
“Virginia is better than this,” Delegate Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, told the crowd. “We represent something better. We have for 400 years. Let’s not go backwards. This is not what Virginia is.”
Participants and organizers said they were pleased with the turnout for the demonstration, particularly after Sunday’s snow.
“We were talking with the Capitol Police here,” said Vicki Yeroian, president of VCU Young Democrats and an advocate intern with Planned Parenthood. “And one of them was kind enough to let us know that in the 27 years that they’ve been working here, they have never seen a demonstration as big as the one that we’ve had today.”
Romeo said the size of the crowd reflected how strongly people feel about the issues.
“I think the turnout has been really wonderful,” he said. “I think the fact that the legislation is so absurd and so ridiculous [means] people are angry, which I think is a really good power to make people get involved.”