RICHMOND, Va. - Hundreds of women locked arms and stood in silence outside the Virginia State Capitol yesterday to protest a wave of antiabortion legislation coursing through the General Assembly.
Capitol and State Police officers estimated the crowd to be more than 1,000 people - mostly women. The crowd formed a human cordon through which legislators walked before yesterday’s floor sessions of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The protest was over bills that would define embryos as humans and criminalize their destruction, require “transvaginal’’ ultrasounds of women seeking abortions, and cut state aid to poor women seeking abortions.
Molly Vick of Richmond said it was her first time taking part in a protest, but the issue was too infuriating and compelling. On her lavender shirt, she wore a sticker that said “Say No to State-Mandated Rape.’’ Just beneath the beltline of her blue jeans was a strip of yellow tape that read “Private Property: Keep Out.’’
One organizer said the event took root, was organized, and publicized almost wholly through Facebook and other social media after last week’s votes on landmark antiabortion bills racing through a legislature dominated for the first time by conservative Republicans.
“We could feel that there was a lot of outrage and emotion and people talking about these issues,’’ said Sarah Okolita, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate student who helped arrange the event.
The protest also came as Virginia’s highly partisan debate over abortion legislation moved into the realm of comedy and national pop culture when a segment on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live’’ lampooned ultrasound bills sponsored by Delegate Kathy Byron, Republican of Campbell County, and Senator Jill Vogel, Republican of Fauquier.
Initially, participants were kept off the interior of Capitol Square. They stood in a queue that stretched nearly three blocks on a sidewalk along the eastern perimeter of the Capitol campus.
Later, after many legislators had taken the 170-yard walk from their office building to the Capitol for their 11:30 a.m. caucus meetings and floor sessions afterward, they were allowed to take up positions inside Capitol Square.
Two or three deep, protesters lined both sides of the primary sidewalk from the General Assembly Building toward the Capitol’s west door.
Reaction from legislators varied, largely based on party affiliation. “God bless y’all. You’re doing the right thing,’’ Delegate Algie T. Howell, Democrat of Norfolk, said as he walked past the unspeaking throng.
Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Republican of Prince William, acknowledged it was “an impressive crowd.’’
“So there’s opposition to this measure. So what’s new about that?’’ said Marshall, the sponsor of the “personhood’’ legislation that could outlaw all abortions and, critics say, some forms of contraception in Virginia if the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion is reversed.
Marshall’s bill passed the House on a vote of 66 to 32 and is pending before the Senate Education and Health Committee.
Both chambers have passed legislation that would force women seeking abortions to first undergo an ultrasound examination to determine a gestational age for the fetus. In the procedure, a device is inserted and used to send out sound waves.
Governor Bob McDonnell, a Republican and socially conservative Catholic, has said he will sign the ultrasound bill, but has taken no position on Marshall’s personhood bill, a spokesman said last week.
At yesterday’s protest, the ultrasound bill provoked more scorn than Marshall’s.
“My decision to come here today is based on the fact that what states do impacts the rest of the nation,’’ said Carole Lewis-Anderson, who traveled snow-covered roads from Washington for the Presidents’ Day event. “To be able to intrude into a woman’s body by law? That’s beyond belief!’’
Other states are considering changes to laws regulating abortions and birth control.
A committee of the New Hampshire House this week will review a state law that requires pregnant girls under the age of 18 to tell their parents if they are seeking abortions or get a judge’s approval.
The Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing today on a bill to change the requirement that a judge issue a ruling within 48 hours to within two court business days. If the deadline is extended, girls filing petitions later in a week would not hear back over a weekend, effectively lengthening their wait time.
The law requiring parental notice took effect Jan. 1 after lawmakers overrode Governor John Lynch’s veto.
In a separate development yesterday, a group of evangelical pastors issued a statement opposing an Obama administration requirement that employees of religiously affiliated businesses receive birth control coverage.
The Family Research Council announced its position at the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Nashville, joining Roman Catholic officials in opposing the measure.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said more than 2,500 pastors and evangelical leaders have signed a letter to President Obama asking him to reverse the mandate.
While most Protestants do not oppose contraception per se, the letter calls the mandate a violation of religious freedoms.
“This is not a Catholic issue,’’ Perkins said. “We will not tolerate any denomination having their religious freedom infringed upon by the government.’’