By Jeff Caruso, Director of the Virginia Catholic Conference
On July 1, a new Virginia budget policy took effect that dramatically curtails state funding of abortion. Although this landmark provision is but a few lines buried within hundreds of pages of state spending policies, it is the product of many voices and countless hours of “behind the scenes” advocacy over many years.
Since 2005 - The Call for Change
Since its inception in 2005, the Virginia Catholic Conference has pushed for these restrictions, armed with figures showing that Virginia residents have been paying for well over 100 abortions per year with their state tax dollars. Promotion of laws that uphold the sanctity of life are an important part of the pro-life work of Catholic Virginians, which also includes outreach to women in crisis pregnancies and post-abortion healing ministries. Members of the Conference’s e-mail advocacy network consistently weighed in on the budget issue, sending hundreds of e-mails to their delegates and state senators expressing their opposition to paying for abortions.
However, in each Virginia General Assembly session, an all-too-familiar sequence of events unfolded: The legislature’s House of Delegates would approve the abortion-funding restrictions, only to see the language rejected by a few Senate leaders during final budget negotiations between the House and Senate (without a recorded vote).
After enduring the same tired outcome as the legislature adjourned this year on March 14, it seemed to most observers that pro-life advocates would remain stuck in the mud yet again. As spring began, though, a much different outcome was about to blossom.
April 2010 - Amendment Garners Gubernatorial Backing
Recognizing the governor’s ability to propose line-item amendments to the budget (which the General Assembly would vote on upon returning to Richmond in April for a one-day session), the Conference and its network made their case to newly inaugurated Governor Bob McDonnell. The governor agreed that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for abortions, and decided it was time for a long-overdue up-or-down vote on the matter.
On April 13, McDonnell proposed an amendment to ban state funding of all abortions except as required by federal law or state statute. The effect of the amendment, if approved, would be to eliminate the vast majority of Virginia’s publicly subsidized abortions (that is, those done under a general health rationale which has never received General Assembly approval).
Mid-April 2010 – Persuading the Senate
With the General Assembly set to reconvene on April 21, the Conference, its allies, and its grassroots network sprinted toward the finish line with a clear goal — to capture a majority of votes in the Senate, where both supporters and opponents of the amendment expected a razor-thin margin.
In the days that followed, the Conference sent multiple alerts to its network, communicated with key senators, coordinated with allied pro-life organizations, provided urgent bulletin and pulpit announcements to parishes, and followed up with parish leaders in key districts.
Two days before the vote, it appeared that a 20-20 tie was attainable in the Senate.
April 19, 2010 – An Unexpected Twist
Ordinarily, that would be good news — the lieutenant governor breaks ties in the Senate, and Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling opposes state abortion funding. Due to a completely bizarre turn of events, however, a tie would not be good enough. Bolling was stranded in Italy (attending an economic development conference) when flights were cancelled across Europe because of volcanic activity in Iceland.
As news reports confirmed that he would not be able to fly back to Virginia in time for the vote, the Conference and its pro-life partners intensified their efforts.
April 21, 2010 – Canvassing for Votes
When the day of the vote arrived, supporters and opponents of the governor’s proposed restrictions on abortion funding flocked to the Capitol and began visiting Senate offices one-by-one in search of crucial commitments.
The day was long and full of ups and downs. The Senate Finance Committee heard testimony on the amendment in the morning (including expressions of concern by a University of Virginia hospital representative that were rebutted during the Senate floor debate).
In the afternoon, the House approved the amendment by an overwhelming 64-30 margin, as expected. However, the Conference also learned shortly afterward that one of the Senate’s pro-life legislators had to catch a flight before the Senate vote would occur. Nevertheless, pro-life advocates continually followed up with senators throughout the day in an effort to secure precious votes.
UPDATE: Read the end of the cliffhanger in Part II.