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Alexandria was asked to honor abortion providers. Then Catholics and conservatives spoke up.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D) at a city council meeting on Feb. 15. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)

A plan by Alexandria’s mayor to publicly honor the city’s abortion providers at a local government meeting this week was scrapped after drawing criticism from religious leaders and conservative media outlets.

Whole Woman’s Health, one of two abortion providers in the Northern Virginia suburb, had approached a city lawmaker to ask for an in-person proclamation — a document signed by the mayor and issued at his discretion — declaring March 10 as “Abortion Provider Appreciation Day” in Alexandria.

But after an outcry from local Roman Catholic leaders and some residents, including at least one former Trump White House official, city lawmakers late last week agreed to remove the decree from the agenda for its March 8 meeting.

“It was more controversial than a proclamation should be,” Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said in an interview. “We appreciate those providers for doing the work that they do, and doing it under adverse conditions at times. But, ultimately, it didn’t need to be on our council docket.”

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Proclamations normally make up a brief, unremarkable portion of meetings at Alexandria City Hall, where the mayor might formally recognize Women’s History Month or an awareness week for brain injuries. The pushback against this particular document, then, demonstrates how the fraught politics of abortion are reaching a boiling point — even at the most local levels of government, in an overwhelmingly Democratic city where abortion is rarely a topic of debate.

Momentum for a major legal change on abortion has been building steadily in recent months. In anticipation of a Supreme Court decision that could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 legalizing abortion nationally, Republican-controlled state legislatures have pushed a rash of legislation restricting access to abortion, as Democratic-majority chambers work to guarantee abortion rights.

In Virginia, that tenuous future has created a political storm on the right and the left: Democrats in the General Assembly have made unusual maneuvers to ensure that moderate members of their party cannot advance abortion restrictions pushed by Republicans.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), meanwhile, has irked GOP activists by letting antiabortion legislation sit on the back burner, even as the commonwealth has withdrawn from a legal brief supporting Roe.

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Abortion rights groups began pushing to mark March 10 as Abortion Provider Appreciation Day after David Gunn, an OB/GYN in Florida, was murdered outside his clinic on that day in 1993 during an antiabortion protest. The day has been recognized in recent years with proclamations in Atlanta, Minneapolis and St. Louis, as well as in Washington state.

Whole Woman’s Health, which is based in Texas and operates several clinics around the country, has tried to help spread the day to more cities, particularly as they and other groups warn that abortion rights are now “in peril," spokeswoman Jackie Dilworth said in a statement. The network of clinics has sued Texas and other states for laws restricting access to abortion.

Residents or local groups may ask Alexandria’s mayor for a proclamation on just about anything — including birthdays, graduations and history months — that can be presented at a city council meeting or an outside event. Wilson said that although he does turn down some requests from the public, it would be “rare” for him to turn down a request from another city lawmaker, all of whom are Democrats.

“The council has previously shied away from large national or state issues that don’t have direct community interest,” he said. “In this case, we do have two providers in our city, and this was aimed at showing our appreciation for what they do.”

Wilson’s proclamation said the city should observe the day because the Supreme Court could this year rule on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban and “overturn or severely limit” Roe v. Wade, threatening to send abortion providers to jail.

After word got out in more conservative circles, the reaction was swift. Mercedes Schlapp, a former Trump administration official, spoke out on Twitter. Mollie Hemingway, an Alexandria resident and the editor in chief of the Federalist, called it “demonic.” Michael F. Burbidge, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, released a statement Friday urging his flock to oppose the move.

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Wilson said he removed the decree from the city council agenda Friday after consulting his fellow lawmakers. He already issued the proclamation earlier last week and did not indicate any immediate plans to reverse course, but he acknowledged that he should have polled the entire city council before putting the matter on the docket in the first place.

At the city council meeting Tuesday night, a handful of people nonetheless sat in the audience with large posters that displayed graphic images of aborted fetuses and declared that “abortion is murder.”

At the end of the meeting, Vice Mayor Amy B. Jackson (D) apologized to residents for the episode, saying she had received hundreds of emails on the proclamation.

“To frame this a little bit: I’m a woman on International Women’s Day and totally agree with a woman’s right to choose,” she said, but “that is something that is so divisive at the state and national level, especially.”

But for Dilworth, of Whole Woman’s Health, it all proved why the proclamation was necessary in the first place.

“This backlash underscores just how important it is to let abortion providers and clinic staff know that they are supported,” she said in a statement. "It’s a shame that a very vocal minority has taken this course of disruptive and disrespectful action.”

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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