Republicans in Richmond should not be terribly proud that they are one small step above Nancy Pelosi.
“We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it,” Pelosi said about Obamacare in 2010. GOP lawmakers evidently did not know, until it was pointed out to them by noted medical experts such as comedian Jon Stewart, what was in the ultrasound bill they were poised to pass last week: that it would force many abortion-seeking women to submit to a transvaginal procedure against their will.
Even the legislation’s sponsor, State Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, admitted she had “no concept” about the true extent of her bill—and she wasn’t sure she believed it after being told. Once they found out, though, Republicans beat a rapid retreat. A compromise measure will require an abdominal ultrasound but make the vaginal kind voluntary. Mighty big of them.
“I think a lot of us didn’t understand” the import of Vogel’s bill, says Del. David Albo, who offered the substitute. “But the system works. Today, in my opinion, is an example of people listening to constructive criticism and coming up with the right solution.”
Well, not exactly. It was more like an example of people pelting toward a cliff and tripping just before they reach the edge. Or playing Russian Roulette with a semiautomatic and having the gun jam. A recapitulation of the Philadelphia constitutional convention it was not.
In the State Senate the next day, Republicans had to resort to parliamentary maneuvers to defeat their own HB1. That bill to grant personhood from the moment of conception already had passed the House, and might have made it to the governor’s desk if not for the public fury surrounding both it and the ultrasound bill.
What the personhood measure might have meant in practice is anyone’s guess. The text of the bill stipulated that it did not supersede any existing law or court precedent. In that regard it was as toothless as Virginia’s 2000 constitutional amendment stipulating that “the people have a right to hunt, fish, and harvest game, subject to such regulations and restrictions as the General Assembly may prescribe.”
A right to do only what the government says you can do is not much of a right, and a bill to restrict abortion except wherever abortion is allowed is not much of a restriction. On the other hand, supporters clearly intended it as a first step on the road toward overturning Roe v. Wade. “House Bill 1 will not end abortion in Virginia just as the Declaration of Independence with its noble recognition of inalienable rights [did] not end slavery,” said the Rutherford Institute’s Rita Dunaway.
Still, a wayward court might have used the law to give it a shot. So Senate Republicans chose not to find out what was in the personhood bill by passing it, either. Or at least they chose not to invite further public wrath. Whatever else you think of the state GOP, it obeys the First Rule of Holes.
This has been the story of bill after bill. Republicans pushed a measure to require drug testing of welfare recipients—then dropped it after they found out how much it would cost. A measure to cite motorists for texting while driving slammed into a wall when legislators realized it would give cops a license to read people’s e-mail. A Senate committee narrowly killed a bill that would have required police officers to verify the citizenship of every person arrested for any offense—never mind that resident aliens with visas need not be citizens to live here.
With a couple of exceptions such as repealing one-gun-a-month, state Republicans seem intent on proving the theory that government is a one-way ratchet. Rather than roll back edicts written when Democrats were in charge, they mostly have tried to impose new edicts of their own. Instead of making government smaller, they have simply sought to make it bigger in different ways. And in their haste to impose their will on others, they drafted bill after bill whose consequences they did not comprehend.
Democrats and pro-choice advocates should not feel superior, however. Compared to Obamacare, the bills noted above were case studies in simplicity—some were less than a page long—and foresight. And some of them, notably the personhood bill, employ precisely the same reasoning as health-care reform.
Supporters of the personhood bill insist a mother has a moral duty to provide for her fetus before it is born. Obamacare insists everyone else has a moral duty to provide for it afterward. Liberals who lament that social conservatives are imposing their values on others by force should ask themselves where conservatives ever got that idea in the first place.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.