State Legislatures Take Aim at Women

State legislatures are often fertile ground for contentious or ribald behavior. And, while great strides have been made in the past decade to diversify our state representatives, the good ol' boys network seems to be prevailing. Just in the past month two shockingly retro bills have either passed or been discussed in legislatures on opposite sides of the country.

Let's start with my home state of the past 18 years, Virginia. Never known for its progressive politics or willingness to embrace change, things are not looking up in the state that once proudly used the slogan "Virginia is for lovers." In recent years, we have not been a warm and loving place for gay people to live. Now it's looking less friendly for heterosexuals, at least based on a recent bait-and-switch ploy in the Virginia statehouse.

It's all about that mundane object - the license plate. In our commonwealth, you can choose from some 200 plates signifying your membership in civic organizations, your support for an alma mater or other bragging rights. As of last year, the General Assembly passed a bill authorizing a "Choose Life" license plate. Proceeds from that plate benefit Heartbeat International Inc., which describes itself as a "network of pro-life pregnancy resource centers."

So it seemed entirely just this year when a House Delegate introduced a plate that says, "Trust Women/Respect Choice" that would benefit the Virginia League for Planned Parenthood. Unfortunately, a Delegate named Todd Gilbert did neither, amending the bill to direct the money to the Virginia Pregnant Women Support Fund, managed by the Virginia Board of Health. The amended bill was passed.

Can you imagine the nationwide uproar that would have resulted if the proceeds from the "Choose Life" plate had been diverted to NARAL or Planned Parenthood? And yet the switcheroo in the House for "Trust Women/Respect Choice" has resulted in little outcry. The irony is that Planned Parenthood does so much for so many - prenatal visits, HIV/AIDS testing, infertility treatments, pregnancy tests and, yes, sometimes abortion. It's all about trusting women. The Virginia Senate is still working on the bill and it has yet to be put to a vote by the full Assembly, but the fact that someone named Todd felt he could diss an organization that has done so much to help so many women is appalling.

But perhaps not as appalling as a bill that was actually signed into law earlier this week in Utah and which its author hopes to export to a town near you. The legislation, called the Criminal Homicide and Abortion Revisions, charges women and girls with murder for having miscarriages caused by "an intentional or knowing act." Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed it into law earlier this week after the word "reckless" was removed. The legislation's author, Republican Rep. Carl Wimmer, is so proud of his work that he's busy on a piece of model legislation to shop around to other states.

The implications of the new law could be enormous. If a pregnant woman is directed by her doctor to stay off her feet - but must keep her job as a crossing guard to feed her family - could she be charged under the new law if she has a miscarriage? What about a woman who doesn't know she's pregnant but runs a marathon and then suffers a miscarriage? The penalties for breaking the law are high and how/when/who would be charged are open to interpretation. But no one is addressing why a woman would intentionally or knowingly cause her own miscarriage. What desperation would drive a woman to do such a thing? And who would decide whether the act was intentional?

What the Virginia and Utah legislatures share is a fear of the decisions that women make and a clear desire to pass judgment on women. What a sad state of affairs for those of us living in those two states. But it is clear that we will soon by joined by other states - if a group of fearful, anti-women legislators gets to vote.