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Virginia's Latest Threat to Reproductive Rights
[May 19, 2003]

By Jim Woods

Yes Virginia, at least for the moment, you have access to contraception. Virginia State Delegate Robert Marshall (R-13th) has ignited a firestorm on college campuses in the Old Dominion by advocating that the dispensing of emergency contraception, a.k.a. morning after pills, violated Virginia's 24-hour waiting period for abortion services. Thankfully, the Virginia Attorney General's Office intervened with a letter advising that Marshall's opinion was not based in law, but this dispute yet again identifies that leading opponents of reproductive rights seek not only to regulate abortions, but to also prevent access to contraception.

This year, Marshall's crusade against reproductive rights includes his sponsorship of eleven bills regulating abortion. Marshall began this controversy though by sending letters to Virginia's public colleges and universities advising that the dispensing of emergency contraception violated Virginia law. As this medication is only effective within the first 72-hours after intercourse, the application of this law to morning-after pills would unreasonably limit access to the treatment.

The James Madison University Board of Visitors did succumb to Marshall's intimidation by banning university health officials from providing morning after pills on campus. In the previous eight years, an annual average of 260 JMU students obtained emergency contraception through the student health center. It is unknown exactly how many women were denied their right to medical care as a result of Marshall's pressure.

In its refutation of Marshall's letter, the Virginia Attorney General's Office advised the state's public colleges and universities that emergency contraceptives are a prescription that is not subject to the law's informed consent provisions for abortion services. Responding to this official rebuke, Marshall said that he would introduce legislation during the next General Assembly session to close what he calls a loophole in the informed consent law.

The Virginia dispute is not singular. In statehouses across the country, opponents of reproductive rights are advocating legislation to make their opinion law. Ironically, intervention by the Food and Drug Administration could make the power flexing of these legislators moot. Women's Capitol Corporation, which makes the emergency contraceptive marketed as Plan B, has asked the FDA to approve the over-the-counter sale of their product. Opponents of reproductive rights oppose removing the prescription requirement.

Today, in the United States, emergency contraception is available without a prescription through a network of pharmacists in Alaska, California, and Washington state. Elsewhere, in the United States, the sale of these pills requires a prescription. Over-the-counter sales of emergency contraception already exists in Britain and several European countries, while Canada and Australia are considering relaxing their prescription requirement.

Still, the free exercise of women's individual rights is subject to cumbersome regulation. And as the FDA may not render its decision until February 2004, the abortion issue will continue to be an important factor in the politics of the presidential campaign season and the upcoming congressional elections.

Fundamentally, the abortion disputes are about individual rights—a woman's right to make decisions about her life, her body, her future, and her reproduction. Andrew Dudik, a James Madison University student who has advocated for a ban on emergency contraception, framed the opponent's position when he said, "The university isn't here to solve the mistakes of the students. If students are going to be sexually active, they're going to have to take the consequences."

Although human reason has created emergency contraception, which empowers women to make choices about their lives, Dudik and his allies advocate political force to block a women's ability to act on her choices. Further, the consequences advocated anti-abortion supporters are nothing more than needless suffering and sacrifice for the sin of enjoying sex, or the sin of being raped.

The question is just who invited Dudik, Marshall, and all the other sundry opponents of emergency contraception to enforce their opinion upon a woman seeking to control the process of her body? Anyone who advocates that the state has an interest in shackling a woman's reproductive choices in the name of a zygote.

Legitimately, government exists only to protect individual rights from violation by other individuals. Who will protect the individual rights of women from the political power of rogue legislators like Robert Marshall?


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