Republican delegate Bob Marshall says critics are overstating things when it comes to the personhood bill he is sponsoring in Virginia. Opponents of his bill have argued that not only does the measure grant legal protections to all fetuses beginning at conception, but it could also be construed to outlaw birth control.
The bill is ostensibly less stringent than similar measures that came up in Colorado and Mississippi. As Marshall points out, it does not directly outlaw abortion, but would force the courts to include embryos in definitions of person. "I think I struck a middle ground," says Marshall.
Try telling that to the bill's opponents, who fear the bill's consequences for women's health. The House rejected an amendment by Democratic delegate Virginia Watts that would have specifically protected birth-control access.
Marshall called the amendment "a vehicle to entrap me," arguing it would have hurt the bill in court. By specifically allowing birth control, Marshall says, the courts could interpret the bill as prohibiting anything not specifically allowed. "If I were to accept any one of these," he said, the courts could say "here's Mr. Marshall, acknowledging unintended consequences."
But Watts argues the bill already has that problem because it specifically allows in-vitro fertilization. The last section of Marshall's bill notes that "nothing in this section shall be interpreted as affecting lawfully assisted conception." In other words, in-vitro is okay. Watts contends that because the bill specifically allows in vitro, it therefore disallows any other acts that would interfere with conception—like birth control. "You said it doesn't pertain to one thing, therefore it does to everything else," says Watts. "That's why my amendment was so crucial ... anything that keeps that from being implanted in the womb, kills a person under this bill."
The bill is headed to the state Senate, where no one seems to know what will happen. While the House committee that dealt with Marshall's bill was stacked in favor of the Republicans, the Senate's committee is almost split: seven Republicans who vote pretty consistently with the pro-life advocates, seven Democrats who usually vote pro-choice. Then there's Senator Harry Blevins, a Republican who's record is less absolute. Without Blevins' vote, the bill would probably not make it out of committee. Neither Marshall nor Watts had a clear idea which way Blevins was leaning and the senator was unavailable for comment this afternoon.
Watts is hopeful the debate over her amendment specifically allowing birth control will highlight what's at stake. "I think that my amendment being so clearly before the body really underscores what's there," she said. "Up until then, you could just obfuscate all this with a lot of verbiage."
Meanwhile Marshall's busy painting an almost inverse portrait of his bill. "People who are otherwise intelligent keep bringing up these red herrings," he said, noting that "when it comes to sex a lot of people can't think straight." At least that's something both sides can likely agree on.