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I Am a Pro-Choice Woman, But the 2017 VA Democratic Primary Has Profoundly Shaken My Faith in NARAL Virginia

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by CPruett

I am a pro-choice Virginian, a woman in my forties, who has voted for Democrats in every election and primary for the last 20 years. Since the 2009 election of Republican Governor McDonnell and Attorney General Cuccinelli, in particular, I have relied on NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia to keep me informed and to advocate for reproductive choice and access in our commonwealth. I have received NARAL VA emails and participated in conference calls and other educational events related to NARAL VA initiatives. I have found great value in NARAL VA’s work and have always trusted this organization to have my back and to educate voters in the best pro-choice approaches.

In the 2017 Democratic primary election, however, my faith in NARAL VA as an organization has been profoundly shaken. Like many many pro-choice women in Virginia, I am supporting Tom Perriello for governor, including volunteering for his campaign. I do this with full knowledge of his record, including his ‘yes’ vote on the Stupak-Pitts amendment to the Affordable Care Act as well as his consistent support for legal abortion, Planned Parenthood, and Roe v. Wade. I have read every word I can find on the topic and listened to Tom speak on numerous occasions.

I have heard Tom address the issues of choice and access extensively. I have seen him, while acknowledging past mistakes, advocate for choice in a profoundly progressive way. He not only expresses deep regret for his vote on Stupak and his past support for the Hyde amendment status quo, but speaks eloquently to his understanding of why these positions were wrong. I have heard Tom say that Hyde and Stupak represented “a compromise, and it was the wrong compromise,” that a woman’s right to choose is fundamental and access to a fundamental right is not negotiable, and that reproductive justice cannot be separated from economic justice.

The inseparable link between abortion access and economic justice, in particular, is a position that I’ve been reading about for years in the feminist blogosphere, but never expected to hear uttered by a man running for governor of Virginia. At the same time, Tom’s way of talking about this connection resonates not just with me but with women I know who have previously considered themselves one-issue ‘pro-life’ voters. These women are reconsidering their political affiliation in light of the Trump era, and Tom is there to speak to them. I also know of choice activists, including professionals in the field, who feel the same way I do about Tom.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia thinks differently about this primary, having endorsed Ralph Northam. I believe Dr. Northam would make an excellent governor, and I understood NARAL VA’s thought process when they first made the endorsement. I have disagreed with the public comments of some Northam supporters who affiliate themselves with NARAL VA, but that’s politics. Sometimes even people who agree on important issues disagree about specific candidates, decisions, and strategies. Despite supporting both NARAL VA and Tom Perriello, I have been respectful of NARAL VA’s decision to advocate for their preferred candidate as they see fit.

However, seeing this article on Blue Virginia finally prompted me to email an early draft of this letter to NARAL VA. In the email, I stated:

If NARAL, an organization I previously relied on for a good deal of my education on this issue, is devoting its resources to sending out volunteers who are this poorly educated on the issue they are supposed to be addressing, then absolutely no one is being served.  Not the public and certainly not the truth.

In response to my email, NARAL VA’s executive director, Tarina Keene, contacted me directly. She told me that she had seen the Blue Virginia article, and she acknowledged that NARAL VA canvassers are going door-to-door on Dr. Northam’s behalf. Ms. Keene did not believe that the description in the article matched any of the canvassers who had been in the area. She maintained that her canvassers are well-informed and would not have answered questions in the manner described in the article. Without having more knowledge of the matter, I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt, that the individual may not have been working directly on behalf of NARAL VA.

However, this exchange did not entirely reassure me. In part, this is because the conversation reported in the blog is similar to conversations I have had, personally and online, with Northam supporters who proudly cite NARAL VA as the source of their information. When I say that I am pro-choice and support Tom Perriello, I have reliably been told that I must not be familiar with his record, and in some cases that I have been deceived. When I explain that I have read about Tom’s record, heard him speak, and read his platform on women’s issues, I frequently discover that the person I am talking to has not done any of these things. Instead, the conversation reverts to the argument that a 7+ year old vote on an amendment that never became law is a black mark that cannot be overcome.

In one case, a friend who had received a phone call (perhaps from NARAL VA, perhaps from the Northam campaign; I’m not sure there’s a meaningful distinction at this point) contacted me because the caller made forceful arguments that Tom is weak on choice. My friend, knowing that I am a strong supporter of Tom’s, and that I simply would not be supporting an anti-choice candidate, then reached out to me so that I could provide her with full context. She’s supporting Tom now. Voters are perfectly capable of recognizing when they are being bombarded with negativity and half-truths.

As I stated in my email:

I am frankly baffled by NARAL’s strategy in this election. Your organization is bending over backwards to portray Tom as a threat to women’s health, while declaring on a national level that candidates who are weak on choice are unacceptable. (I agree with this position by the way; what I disagree with is the claim that Tom Perriello is weak on choice.) Should Tom win the primary, which is at least as likely as not, will NARAL VA then acknowledge that he is in fact a strong pro-choice candidate, or will you sit back while Ed Gillespie is elected?

Interestingly, Ms. Keene informed me in her response that NARAL VA has no plans past the primary. Ed Gillespie, the likely Republican nominee, has stated that he would like to see abortion banned. It gobsmacks me that a pro-choice organization would place a higher priority on making sure Ralph Northam wins and Tom Perriello loses than on making sure Virginia has a pro-choice governor.  This is especially hard for me to swallow, because it is almost impossible to express support for Tom Perriello in establishment Democratic circles without being criticized for divisiveness and  interrogated about whether I am planning to support Ralph Northam should he win the primary. (My response, like Tom’s, is, “Yes, of course.”)

In addition, as far as I have been able to determine, NARAL VA has not made an effort to reach out to the new wave of Democratic candidates who are working to flip the House of Delegates from Republican control. Their focus is on the governor’s race, and it is on making sure that one strongly pro-choice candidate beats another.

I understand and sympathize with NARAL’s mission to elevate candidates who are strong on choice. I also have profound respect for Dr. Northam’s work as a state senator and lieutenant governor. The issue to me is that NARAL VA does not seem to be focused on persuading candidates to advocate a specific set of pro-choice positions. (Perriello’s platform on women’s health is in some aspects more progressive than Northam’s — i.e., Tom’s advocacy for a state constitutional amendment protecting Roe v. Wade, and a recent proposal that would allow pharmacists to dispense birth control prescriptions).

Instead, NARAL VA is insisting that candidates must have a particular pro-choice history, without defining exactly what history will be deemed acceptable. It seems to me that the purpose of setting strict standards for choice advocacy should be to encourage candidates to make exactly the kind of thoughtful evolution that Tom Perriello has made. This is particularly true when we know that Dr. Northam himself evolved from a self-described “underinformed” George W. Bush voter in 2004 (whether this statement means he did not know Bush was a particularly horrible anti-choice president, or that he didn’t think it was important at the time is still unclear to me) to a heroic and admirable champion for choice during his time in state office, Why the goalposts are moved so that Northam’s evolution is applauded but Perriello can’t meet the standard without access to a time machine continues to puzzle me.

As a pro-choice voter and advocate, I have many excellent organizations to choose from when allocating my time and support. I can (and do) volunteer with Planned Parenthood of Virginia, an organization that on the same day as my exchange with Ms. Keene, emailed me about their plans to make sure that a pro-choice candidate wins in the fall. I can (and do) donate to local and international abortion funds. I can (and do) recommend places for my pro-choice friends to contribute their resources.

In the past, NARAL VA would have been one of my top recommendations. From what I have seen in this election cycle, I will need to rethink that choice in a serious way. This is particularly true among my younger friends, women in their twenties, many of whom supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. (I voted for Hillary Clinton, for the record, as did many Perriello supporters). The majority of these women now support Tom Perriello; they are also fierce and determined pro-choice feminists.

When NARAL VA says “trust women” but refuses to place trust in pro-choice women who have looked at the record, weighed the issues, and decided to support Tom Perriello, it appears to be uninterested in providing a place in the movement for these young feminist voices. It suggests there is only one right way to be pro-choice, dividing activists needlessly rather than strengthening our coalition.

Whoever wins the primary on June 13th, all Virginians who support the right to choose will need to come together to elect a candidate who will protect women in Virginia. I have already made that commitment. I certainly hope that NARAL VA will do the same.