Members of Roanoke City Council considered passing a resolution last year in support of abortion access, but the effort fizzled because only one councilman supported the move.
Some residents had called on Council to adopt the largely symbolic measure after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe vs. Wade.
After June’s ruling in Dobbs. Vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, liberal-leaning local governments in Virginia — including Blacksburg, Richmond and Alexandria — rushed to adopt resolutions affirming their commitment to reproductive healthcare and privacy.
Roanoke City Attorney Tim Spencer drafted a resolution last summer for Council to consider, according to Vice Mayor Joe Cobb, the lone advocate for the statement. Spencer said the draft cannot be released publicly because it is protected under attorney-client privilege.
“I think it's very clear that a majority of Americans and Virginians and Roanokers want to make sure that when abortions are available, they are available in very safe circumstances,” Cobb said in an interview. “I would love to see the City of Roanoke say that out loud. We can’t set our own laws unless we’re given the authority by the General Assembly. But we can affirm what is there, and I think it’s important to do that even in a world where we have that spectrum of belief” on the issue.
Virginia Democrats, who narrowly control the Senate, warn that if Republicans take control in November’s election, the state could roll back access to abortion, which is allowed within roughly 26 weeks of pregnancy. Many Democrats see abortion access as a winning campaign issue, regardless of political office, that could dissuade moderate suburban voters from voting Republican.
So the city’s failed resolution has gained new relevance in a sort of proxy battle between two members of Council seeking the Democratic nomination for Roanoke Valley’s state Senate seat — a battle over who is most vocal on the issue.
Both Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd and Councilman Luke Priddy have indicated they will resist efforts to weaken Virginia’s current abortion laws if elected to the Senate. (First-time candidate DeAnthony “DA” Pierce is also running.) The winner of a June Democratic primary will face state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, who wants to limit abortion availability.
Priddy, who just took office in January, did not take aim at his primary opponent directly but said, “I applaud Vice Mayor Cobb for his efforts to lead on this. I regret that I did not see it elsewhere from any other members” of Council.
“It goes beyond just some kind of figurative representation of support, but even locally, it can lead to broader policy action, where in Bristol, we're seeing something moving in the opposite direction of support for reproductive rights,” Priddy said, referring in part to elected leaders in the Virginia half of that city attempting to ban new abortion clinics.
White-Boyd said Friday she would have to confer with her campaign staff about scheduling an interview but did not respond to a follow-up request as of deadline. But she has previously expressed support for abortion access.
“This is not [only] about abortion and a woman's right to choose,” White-Boyd wrote The Rambler in May 2022 after the Dobbs decision leaked. “It’s about losing what autonomy we have as human beings and individuals. This will change the political landscape, leading us down a treacherous path that will impact all rights from Civil rights, lgbtq, freedom of speech, same sex marriage, the right to bear arms, freedom of press and the list goes on.”
“I will fight for women’s rights,” White-Boyd said last month at her campaign kickoff at the Berglund Center. “Fifty years later, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, we are having to fight again for our basic rights. Why do we have to continue to fight? It is our bodies, and we ought to be able to make the decision on what is best for us.”
'Like a slap in the face'
Last summer, Roanoke activist Caroline Garcia and her friend Julia Buccola, of Radford, worked with Cobb and Priddy, then a candidate, on coming up with a resolution for the local governments in Roanoke and Radford to consider. Separately, members of the Roanoke Alliance for Reproductive Rights (RARR), which formed after the Dobbs decision, also advocated for Roanoke to codify its values on abortion access.
Garcia’s draft resolution, shared by Priddy, asks the city attorney “to actively seek participation, as a plaintiff or amicus curiae, on-going or future litigation to protect the availability of abortion services” in Roanoke and asks the city manager to consider budget proposals to “ensure accessibility of reproductive healthcare services for low-income” residents.
Ultimately, instead of a standalone resolution, Council included a line about reproductive healthcare in its annual list of requests to state lawmakers.
“It was just like a slap in the face,” Garcia said last month, before she became Priddy's campaign manager a week ago. “Because these people … they use this issue as, ‘We need to fight for it.’ And then when it came across, no one wanted to actually fight for it.”
Not connected to a particular piece of proposed legislation, the overall policy reads, “The City supports legislation to promote healthcare for all Virginians, including reproductive healthcare for women, free from discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
Members of RARR also expressed disappointment with Council’s approach.
“This fell short of what RARR was proposing, which would have been at least a statement of affirmation and further a motion of legislative action making clear that Roanoke would not support a ban on abortion in Virginia and would oppose statewide legislation preventing access,” Michael Lawson said in an email. “Roanoke is a progressive city so near to the border of states that are actively fighting abortion access and other human rights, our hope was that Council would affirm that progressive attitude with action rather than performative value statements.”
Lindsey Lineberry, another member of RARR, took issue with Council’s emphasis on reproductive healthcare “for women.”
“We are a group advocating not just for women, but all birthing persons, so this get[s] counterproductive to our goal,” Lineberry wrote in an email, referring also to pregnant people who are trans or non-binary.
Residents dismayed by the Dobbs decision say the Supreme Court’s legal logic could also extend to upending constitutional protections for same-sex marriage and access to contraception.
“Just thinking out loud here, but you know what, let's say that Obergefell was overturned,” Cobb said, referring to the 2015 case legalizing same-sex marriage. “Historically, because of the nature of how we've moved as a city, and how we talk about ourselves as a diverse, multicultural, inclusive city … if we believe that, then we ought to be able to be one of the first localities to say we support Obergefell, and we think it should be retained.”
Cobb believes that thinking applies to a resolution on Dobbs, rather than a sentence in the city’s state law wishlist.
“It didn’t go far enough, in my opinion,” he said. “While Virginia is pretty solid in terms of protections, we can see how that can change very quickly if there’s not a firewall, and the Senate is the firewall right now.”
'It's a national matter'
Suetterlein did not respond to a message Monday but in a May 2022 interview noted that Virginia has more permissive abortion laws compared to many states.
“Democrats have brought extreme abortion policies to Virginia and are now further trying to ratchet up emotional anger for political purposes,” he said then.
In this year’s General Assembly, Suetterlein voted to advance a bill that would have imposed a 15-week abortion ban and another bill stating that “life begins at conception and no abortion is authorized or shall be performed” except in cases of rape, incest and other rare cases. Both failed to make it out of a Democratic-controlled Senate committee.
Mayor Sherman Lea said “a majority of Council, in discussions on this,” are of the belief that “a woman has a right to choose.” But he didn’t think a resolution was warranted because “really, it’s a national matter,” Lea said, and “it’s not in our purview as a Council.”
Council members Vivian Sanchez-Jones and Stephanie Moon Reynolds, as well as former Councilwoman Anita Price, said they could not recall much about the draft Dobbs resolution and said Council never had an in-person discussion on the matter.
Since the makeup of Council has changed since last year — Priddy and Councilman Peter Volosin replaced Price and former councilman Bill Bestpitch — Cobb believes there may be support to take up the issue again. Volosin said he'd likely support a resolution on Dobbs but hadn't seen any draft.
Bestpitch chaired the legislative committee at the time Council added a line about reproductive healthcare to its legislative priorities.
“From my perspective, at least, it's just not a good idea for us to get in the practice of passing a separate resolution for everything in our legislative package that somebody thinks is important,” Bestpitch said in a December interview. “If we start passing resolutions for everything, that would just get kind of crazy after a while.”
And weighing in on state or national matters can be an exercise in futility, he said.
“Quite frankly, my experience over the years is that you can send a lot of people resolutions and you don't even know if they ever read it,” Bestpitch said, “because it doesn’t seem to affect their decisions all that much.”
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