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The Untold Story of House Bill 1 - The Unalienable Right to Life Act

Written by Rita Dunaway

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Upon eagerly opening The Family Foundation’s latest “Report Card,” I was surprised to find no record of the votes on Delegate Bob Va Delegate Bob Marshall and Va Senator Mark ObenshainMarshall’s House Bill 1, which figured so prominently into the highly-publicized weeping and gnashing of teeth by Virginia abortion lobbyists in 2012. This legislation would clarify that, for purposes of construing Virginia law, every human being is considered a person with fundamental rights, from the time of conception until natural death.

One of the practical effects of the legislation would have been the automatic creation of a civil cause of action for the wrongful death of an unborn child—allowing either parent of an unborn baby to bring a lawsuit against a person whose wrongful act killed the baby. While this was important, and a laudable pro-life goal in and of itself, the implications and effects of House Bill 1 are much broader, deeper, and more significant.

The goal with HB1 was never limited to the creation of a lawsuit, but was more fundamental: the recognition of the humanity of pre-born babies for all legal purposes. Such recognition makes a loud, clear pro-life statement, of course. The statement is that abortion is the killing of a human baby—the killing of a person endowed with inalienable rights rather than the dignified disposal of impersonal, meaningless “products of conception.”

But there is more to HB1 than even that bold proclamation of truth. By acting on the Commonwealth’s prerogative to decide for itself which “persons” are possessed of fundamental rights under the Virginia Constitution and Code, the legislature can significantly impact judicial decisions on legal challenges to future pro-life legislation. In essence, while HB1 does nothing to directly erode the “reproductive rights” created by the United States Supreme Court, it would introduce a new category of “rights” to be considered by the courts: the bundle of fundamental rights the bill explicitly acknowledges as belonging to every human being from conception until natural death.

I don’t know why HB1 wasn’t mentioned in the Report Card. Maybe it was because the story was too big to be reduced to a few lines of print and evaluated with simple plus and minus symbols. Maybe it was because The Family Foundation was content that a separate bill, Senate Bill 674, created the wrongful death cause of action that would also have resulted from passage of HB1– even though it omitted that critical recognition of the humanity and basic rights of the unborn child. I don’t know the reason, but here is the untold story:

HB1 passed the House of Delegates easily, for the second consecutive year. Then it headed to the Senate to be heard by the highly unpredictable Education and Health Committee. When we arrived at the Committee room at around 7:30 a.m., lines were already forming. It was Planned Parenthood's Lobby Day, and abortion activists turned out in droves.

Our hopes were not particularly high that HB1 would survive this Committee. In fact, we were convinced that it would be quite the miracle for that to happen after The Family Foundation had given its support to SB674, which many viewed (incorrectly) as an acceptable alternative.

The hearing was long and heated. The spiritual battle in that room was almost palpable. A number of times, opponents of the bill (who, again, packed the sizeable room) were threatened with removal for their inappropriate comments and interruptions. At one point, someone was removed.

But when the vote was taken, it was 8-7 to report the bill to the full Senate (a win!). That was incredible!

In the lobby, opponents chanted and waved their arms menacingly. At one point, one woman took a swing at Delegate Marshall and had to be restrained by the police. I was verbally accosted by two different women, separately. After several minutes, police gave the order to "clear the lobby." Opponents proceeded outside, where they lined the street with their signs, chanting, "My body--my choice!"

Just a few hours later, in a rare procedural move, the Senate leadership had expedited the bill to the Senate floor (where it was not expected until Monday). Senator Dick Saslaw, a Democrat from the Education and Health Committee, moved to send the bill BACK to the same Committee that had just passed it, for reconsideration in 2013. His motion was seconded by the Republican Majority Leader, Senator Tommy Norment. 

Senator Mark Obenshain courageously spoke against the motion and insisted that a recorded vote be taken on it. However, five Republicans voted with the Democrats to send the bill back to Committee. These five were Tommy Norment, Frank Ruff, Frank Wagner, John Watkins and Harry Blevins, who had voted to report the bill from Committee only hours before! (Ponder the motivations of these five. Are they not pro-life? Do they believe life begins sometime after conception?)

This effectively killed the bill for the year. While Senator Steve Martin could have convened a special session of the Committee last fall to revive the bill, he declined to do so.

The rest of the story remains to be written.

The pro-life community should thank Delegate Marshall for doing the hard, unpopular work of carrying strong, meaningful legislation that holds real potential to change the game in abortion law. I am unspeakably sad about the fact that his valiant efforts appear to have been ignored by those who should be providing the strongest support.

We should also thank Senator Mark Obenshain for taking a courageous stand on the Senate floor, resisting the efforts of some politicians (including Republican leaders) to pervert the normal legislative process by avoiding a full, recorded floor vote on the legislation itself.

These legislators deserve to have this story told.

I am hopeful that all those who care deeply about the sanctity of human life will coalesce around the few champions we have in the General Assembly, and that House Bill 1--broadly recognizing the unique, inherent value of every human life--will yet become the law of Virginia.

Rita DunawayRita Dunaway, Virginia Christian Alliance Vice President for Public Policy, also writes on her blog Fundamental Things.

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