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Democrats Move to Roll Back Virginia Abortion Laws

Virginia Democrats on Wednesday advanced bills that would get rid of abortion restrictions like the requirement that ultrasounds be performed prior to the procedure, the first step in their effort to undo so-called TRAP laws.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Eight years ago, Muna Hijazi was arrested on the steps of the Virginia Capitol. She and thousands of others had participated in a march to legislators’ offices after Republicans had promised to pass targeted restrictions on abortion providers, known as TRAP laws. Hijazi, who hadn't planned on getting arrested that day, said she felt like she had run out of options.

After months of lobbying legislators, the GOP eventually did pass TRAP laws that advocates say unduly burden those seeking abortions.

But back on that cold March day, Hijazi was thinking of what it means to stand up for her rights and how America’s founding fathers would want her to act.

“We’re Virginians, these steps were built by Thomas Jefferson,” she recalled in a phone interview, channeling the founding father who famously advocated for the ability to redress elected officials. “That’s logically where we were supposed to be.”

Jefferson once said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

But Capitol police saw things differently in 2012 and instead arrested Hijazi and dozens of others for refusing to leave. Protesters spent eight hours on a bus waiting to be processed before finally being released.

Hijazi has since moved to Arizona to continue advocacy work there, but she promised friends she might return if and when Virginia’s policies lined up with her own values.

Now, after years of TRAP laws hampering abortion across the state, she might have to take up that offer. Democrats, in control of both legislative chambers for the first time in decades, have promised to roll them back.

They are off to a good start. House bills that would get rid of the requirement that ultrasounds be performed prior to an abortion and other restrictions passed their first committee hurdle Wednesday afternoon.

“The TRAP regulations are oppressive and unconstitutional,” one of the bill’s sponsors, Delegate Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, said ahead of the committee vote.

Senator Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, is a co-sponsor of one of several other bills that aim to roll back the controversial TRAP laws and expand access to abortion.

“During my time at the General Assembly I’ve seen women’s reproductive health and rights under attack time and time again,” Boysko said at a press conference Wednesday morning.

“It is a new time and new dawn in Virginia,” she added.

TRAP laws have made headlines over the last decade as ways for conservatives to limit access to abortion in spite of Roe. v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion up until 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

They added waiting periods, required abortions to be performed by doctors instead of nurse practitioners or other licensed staff, changed the physical design of procedure rooms and buildings, and in Virginia required an ultrasound be performed before the procedure could occur.

The laws spread around the country and were pushed through by Republican-controlled legislatures, closing some clinics and spurring many legal battles. Texas famously lost at the Supreme Court in a fight over impossible-to-meet standards for clinics to operate in the state.

“Lots of things have changed over the years,” said Vanessa Fowlkes, a board certified women’s health family practitioner who has worked at a Richmond-area Planned Parenthood facility since 2001.

She stuck around through TRAP law changes that, among other issues, forced her office to literally widen its hallways.

“The only thing that never changed was the decision that the woman made because she didn’t enter that decision lightly,” Fowlkes said at Wednesday’s press conference.

Rachel Scruggs, a patient advocate from the northern Virginia town of Manassas, used the press conference as a chance to tell her story about having an abortion.

Her first son was born autistic. She said she made the decision to abort her second pregnancy because she already struggled with supporting her first child.

“Having an abortion was the best decision for my family and I’ve never once regretted that decision,” Scruggs said before adding that the four-day process forced her to miss work in addition to having to pay for the procedure.

“Virginians should have the ability to decide if, how and when to start a family and we do not need political restrictions in place to stop us,” she said.

Among the bills being pushed by Democrats is measure requiring abortions to be covered under insurance plans.

“Virginians expect us to pass reproductive health and make sure bodily autonomy is protected,” said Senator Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, another sponsor of an anti-TRAP bill. She said it is important for Democrats to “make sure that women can make the best decisions that are best for her.”

As for Hijazi, she’s happy to hear of the new Democratic majorities’ promise to make change, no matter what Republicans think.

“I grew up in a red Virginia… but there’s a big part of me that thinks this might be the end,” she said. “Republicans should have thought about the treatment they would want when the tables turned… and now they are where they are at. And Democrats should do everything they can to right this injustice done against Virginians.”

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