Democrats Try to Make "Personhood" Bill an Issue in Va. Senate Race

Democrats Try to Make "Personhood" Bill an Issue in Va. Senate Race

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - February 18, 2012

By most accounts, the economy will be the driving issue in U.S. Senate race in Virginia. However, if Democrats have their way, a local personhood bill will put a wedge between their candidate, Tim Kaine, and the Republican, George Allen.

Old Dominion Republicans this week pushed through anti-abortion legislation in the state House of Delegates that would define "personhood" as beginning at the moment of conception. The House has approved this type of legislation before, but it has been killed by the Democratic-controlled senate. Republicans now control both chambers of the state legislature, giving this bill a chance at becoming law.

The legislation was sponsored by George Allen's Republican primary opponent, state Del. Robert Marshall. In defending his bill, Marshall said the legislation would not prohibit contraception. Instead, it likens abortion to the wrongful death of an unborn child. But critics say the language is ambiguous when it comes to certain methods of birth control.

Allen supports the measure. "My commitment to protecting innocent human life is firm," he said in a statement. "I believe that life begins at conception and support legislation declaring the personhood of every individual life." In a radio interview this week, Allen said he would support a federal version of the measure as well.

Nonetheless, he is being cautious in his response to the Virginia bill. "His understanding is that this is a law that does not ban contraceptives," an Allen campaign adviser, Dan Allen, told RCP. And, he said, if the language is ambiguous, the legislation should be amended to make that clearer. Candidate Allen does not support a ban on contraceptives.

National Democrats argue the law would criminalize the use of birth control methods. They are portraying Allen as pandering to the right of his party in order to win his primary against Marshall.

“George Allen’s priorities are completely out of whack,” said Shripal Shah, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It’s bad enough that he’s completely ignoring the most pressing issues facing Virginia, but it’s even worse to see him embrace such a far-right social agenda that would roll back health care for women.”

The issue of women's health and contraception is not new to the Virginia senate race. Last week, Kaine, a former DNC chairman who is close to Barack Obama, butted heads with the president on the health care law requirement that Catholic organizations cover birth control in their insurance plans. Kaine, a Catholic but a supporter of contraception, called for a broader exemption for religious organizations. Obama amended the mandate to Kaine's approval, but it further fueled the Allen campaign's criticism of the president's health care law. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill took up the issue this week.

The "personhood" bill is clearly a distraction for Allen, and his likely opponent is taking the opportunity to paint a picture of contrasts between the two. "It’s clear that while Virginians continue to call for focusing on job creation, George Allen remains fixated on divisive and irresponsible personhood legislation," said Brandi Hoffine, communications director for the Kaine campaign.

Republicans don't want the politics of the personhood bill to seep into the U.S. Senate race, and they insist that by Election Day, voters will have the economy -- not social issues -- on their minds. "Obviously, this is an issue by virtue of the fact that it's going through the state legislature, but this is one of those issues that, come three months from now, no one is going to be talking about," said one Republican operative familiar with the campaign. "Democrats want to talk about anything but the economy." 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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