Thirteen years ago, I became the first member of the Virginia House of Delegates to be pregnant and give birth while in office. The experience gave me a new perspective on how abortion laws impact health care decisions made by pregnant patients and their providers. Then, five years later when I had a high-risk pregnancy resulting in my daughter’s premature birth, I was reassured that the constitutional right to make my own reproductive health decisions would temper the will of politicians to insert themselves in the most personal and often complex decisions I needed to make.
That is no longer the case.
In the 14 months since the Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health rescinded the constitutional right to abortion access for millions of people, every Southern state has passed extreme and restrictive abortion laws, except Virginia. Between New Mexico and Virginia, each state has a swath of laws attacking reproductive freedom, including access to abortion. Virginia managed to buck the trend, with our last neighboring state South Carolina’s abortion ban going into effect recently.
But make no mistake—the future of abortion rights is on the ballot in Virginia.
The last time Republicans had a trifecta in Virginia, the General Assembly passed—and former Governor Bob McDonnell signed—restrictive abortion laws creating medically unnecessary barriers to abortion care such as mandatory ultrasounds and Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws designed to close health centers and shame patients. And Virginia came within one vote of eliminating Medicaid funding for abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities.
In 2020, the pro-reproductive freedom majorities in the Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate passed the Reproductive Health Protection Act, removing these and other medically unnecessary barriers to abortion access and becoming the only southern state to expand access to abortion. Today, Virginia is the only southern state without an abortion ban, but we are at a crossroads.
Virginia Republicans have tried to pass anti-abortion legislation every year I was in the Virginia General Assembly. As recently as this January, Republicans tried to repeal the Reproductive Health Protection Act, adopt an abortion ban that Governor Glenn Youngkin said he would “gleefully” sign, restrict Medicaid funding for abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities, and even adopt a personhood bill that would define life at conception—but we Senate Democrats stopped them. The facts are clear: They won’t stop until they’ve banned abortion outright.
In fact, anti-abortion extremists and their allies are pouring millions of dollars into the state to try to flip the Senate. And if these extremists win, the top of their agenda will be restricting abortion rights. If Republicans get a trifecta, we will see in Virginia the same kind of bans that have been enacted across the country.
I’ve seen what these bans do, and I know how deeply personal decisions about pregnancy are—even now, we see patients overcoming immense obstacles to safely end their pregnancies. People from across the country, especially the South, drive all night long to get to their appointments in Virginia, just to get necessary health care and drive back home. Some of them need financial assistance, transportation, child care, and even time off work to access essential health care. We know other things like income and zip code can also add undue hardships for patients seeking care, and those burdens fall hardest on Black and brown folks and those who are continually marginalized. It shouldn’t be this difficult for people to access the time-sensitive, urgent medical care they need.
The fact is that judges and politicians should not decide how to end a pregnancy. These extreme legislators want a cold, callous world where patients are at the mercy of their elected officials to make these decisions—decisions that deserve compassion and care for the nearly 1 in 4 women in the U.S. who will have an abortion in her lifetime.
Our goal is to keep extremist politicians out of the exam rooms of millions of patients across the country and keep decisions about health care between patients and providers.
Virginians must vote not just for ourselves in 2023, but for future generations. And we need Congress to vote on and pass federal patient protections by passing the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2023.
As the first generation of my family to lose a constitutional right, I want to make sure my daughter doesn’t have fewer rights when she is of child-bearing years than I did. We cannot be complacent and assume that an abortion ban can’t happen in Virginia. Like many Americans, I know that our rights must be protected. We know the path forward to ensure that protection. Abortion is on the ballot in Virginia, and I am hopeful Virginians will heed the call.
U.S. Representative Jennifer McClellan was elected to represent the 4th Congressional District of Virginia in a special election in February 2023 after serving 18 sessions in the Virginia General Assembly. In 2020, she was the Virginia Senate patron of the Reproductive Health Protection Act, which made Virginia the first state in the South to proactively expand access to abortion. Born in Petersburg, she lives with her family in Richmond.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.