RICHMOND — Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) charged on Monday that a member of the state Senate had made “disingenuous” and “inaccurate” comments about abortion and long-term contraceptives for women.
As he often does, Northam invoked his background as a physician to give weight to his remarks, which he made in a news conference surrounded by advocates for abortion rights and women’s health-care issues.
But in this case, the person he was criticizing is also a physician — an obstetrician-gynecologist. And a woman.
State Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico) made her comments on the floor of the Senate last Thursday in discussing a budget amendment. The measure involved allocating federal welfare dollars for long-term, reversible contraceptives for low-income women.
Dunnavant was advocating funding only chemical implants, and not intrauterine devices, or IUDs. The difference, she said, is that the chemical implant “suppresses ovulation and therefore is not an abortifacient,” meaning it doesn’t cause abortion.
Pressed by Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington), who said she objected to lawmakers taking any role in a woman’s discussion of options with her health-care provider, Dunnavant responded that she was trying to craft something that could find broad political support.
The House of Delegates had zeroed out all $6 million that had been earmarked by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) for long-term contraceptives in its version of the budget. Restoring $3 million of that for the implant, Dunnavant said, might persuade House members to go along. Funding for IUDs would be more controversial, she said.
IUDs are designed to prevent fertilization, but if an egg is fertilized, they also prevent implantation. Many who believe that life begins at conception consider this contraception method to be a form of abortion.
“There are at least 50 percent of the population that’s uncomfortable spending that money on something that could be an abortifacient, so this is a good way to go,” Dunnavant said during the debate. The budget amendment passed the Republican-controlled chamber on a voice vote.
Northam presided over the discussion in his role as lieutenant governor and president of the Senate, but parliamentary procedure prevented him from injecting his opinion. So he called a news conference Monday to call for full funding for IUDs.
Northam is looking to increase his profile on progressive issues as he runs for the Democratic nomination for governor, fending off a primary challenge from former U.S. congressman Tom Perriello.
As part of that effort, Northam also released a position paper Monday on criminal justice issues — calling for, among other things, the decriminalization of marijuana possession.
And in talking about contraceptives, the usually reserved politician took a hard line in his criticism of Dunnavant. He didn’t mention her by name, but he confirmed, when asked, that she was his target.
“What I heard last week was a legislator that stood up and said contraceptives, namely IUDs, cause abortions,” said Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist. “It’s disingenuous and it’s offering inaccurate medical information to say that IUDs cause abortions, and we need to stop shaming women, making them think that the contraceptives that we have available in 2017 cause abortions.”
Reached later, Dunnavant said she was surprised by Northam’s comments but not offended. “Ralph and I are friends, and this is politics,” she said.
She agreed with Northam that long-term contraceptives have been shown to greatly reduce unwanted pregnancies and abortions among low-income women. But, she said, she was trying to craft a compromise that would preserve some funding over objections to IUDs.
“There are constituents who strongly believe these are abortifacients,” she said. “I believe that we don’t have any definitive data that says they’re not.”