The Roanoke Times
The nation watched as H.B. 1 — dubbed by some the “personhood” bill — made its way through Virginia’s General Assembly. After the bill passed the House of Delegates for the second consecutive year, the stage was set for an intense debate in the Senate Education and Health Committee. No one could be certain of the outcome, where a one-vote Republican majority was no guarantee of success for abortion-related legislation.
The story has all the makings of an American political classic. On one side of the debate: an ardent pro-life movement determined to pass laws reflecting the fact that life begins at conception. On the other: abortion supporters deriding the idea that a fertilized egg could be considered a person. Hidden from plain sight, however, was the steady diet of spurious arguments against the bill, fed to legislators and unwitting citizens by fear-mongering abortion activists.
However ridiculous to any seeker of truth, these phantoms created by Planned Parenthood and company were undeniably effective in spreading an all-out, sky-is-falling panic. Virginians were told again and again — and many appear to have believed — that H.B.1 would effectively criminalize abortion, contraception and in vitro fertilization treatment.
Opponents incorrectly, but again effectively, identified the Virginia bill with failed personhood initiatives in states like Colorado and Mississippi. One widely circulated story by Virginia Capital News Service went so far as to state plainly, “No state has passed such a law.”
But the fact is that Del. Bob Marshall chose the language of H.B.1 specifically because it was identical to a decades-old Missouri law that has withstood both the test of time and the scrutiny of the U.S.Supreme Court.
In a 1989 decision, the court rejected a challenge to the Missouri law, reversing lower courts’ decisions and returning the law to full force and effect. Tellingly, the court found that the constitutional challenge to the statute was not even properly raised because the law, by its own terms, did not regulate abortion or any other medical practice. Rather, the law expresses a policy judgment favoring childbirth over abortion, and recognizing the basic humanity of unborn children.
Naturally, groups like Planned Parenthood did not want the public to know that identical provisions have been law in Missouri since 1986. This element of truth would have thrown a considerable wrench into their fear-mongering tactic. For instance, citizens and legislators might have wondered why news of the criminalization of contraception and IVF had not reached us in the 26 years since the language was enacted in Missouri. And how would the anti-H.B.1 groups explain the fact that the only difference between Marshall’s bill and the Missouri law was that H.B.1 included a section providing an additional layer of protection for assisted-conception practices?
Rather than confronting these inconvenient truths, frenzied abortion lobbyists continued to twist facts to suit their cause. While anyone with legal training could quickly identify abortion activists’ arguments against H.B.1 as phantoms, most of the public had no easy way to evaluate the persistent and frightening predictions that many medical practices would be affected by the bill.
The truth is, the bill would not have become a criminal law, nor would it have regulated any medical practices. Conduct that is legal on Monday cannot, by virtue of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, become criminal on Tuesday absent a very specific criminal statute providing clear notice as to precisely what is prohibited.
This foundational legal concept immediately dissolves the specter of IVF patients being hauled off to jail, doctors struggling to understand legal obligations or women losing access to contraception.
Moreover, many Virginians don’t realize that Virginia statutes specifically permit abortion during early pregnancy pursuant to Roe v. Wade. H.B.1, a general rule of construction bill, does nothing to interfere with these specific, existing laws.
In light of those laws’ continued existence, claims that H.B.1 would criminalize abortion or contraception — or in any way interfere with medical treatments — are ludicrous.
In the end, H.B.1 survived a brutal debate before the Senate Education and Health Committee, where the truth took center stage. Every question raised about unintended consequences was answered. But mere hours after the committee reported the bill, senators who apparently fell for the fear mongering re-committed it back to the same committee for further consideration in 2013.
In preparation for this further consideration, I challenge every legislator and citizen to look beyond the phantoms to the truth. The questions have answers, and the answers are real.
Rita Dunaway, an attorney with The Rutherford Institute, lives in Harrisonburg.Virginia Christian Alliance Lawyers For Life | Website: Fundamental Things.