Forty years ago, Phyllis Schlafly led the successful drive to derail the Equal Rights Amendment, but this time, the most formidable opposition is coming from the pro-life movement.
With the revived ERA under consideration in the Virginia General Assembly, pro-life advocates have sought to put the brakes on the amendment’s advance, arguing that the measure represents a stealth campaign to enshrine abortion rights in the U.S. Constitution.
“The ERA is not about women. It is really a smokescreen for abortion,” Patrina Mosley, director of life, culture and women’s advocacy for the Family Research Council, said at a Thursday press conference in Richmond.
A coalition of conservative and pro-life groups urged Virginia legislators to reject ratification. They called it a “Trojan horse” aimed at providing a constitutional foothold for abortion while pro-choice activists fear for the future of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling as the Supreme Court tilts to the right.
“They’re afraid that Roe is going to be overturned, that more states are going to pass legislation to protect the pre-born and support women to choose life,” said Tina Whittington, executive vice president of Students for Life of America. “The only reason to pick the ERA off the dusty floor of history is because of a fierce desire to protect abortion at all costs.”
Their lobbying effort failed to stop the amendment from clearing its first legislative hurdle Wednesday as the Virginia Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted 8-6 to move the resolution to the floor.
“I think the urgency and the historical importance of being the state to put us across the top really sort of changes the political and emotional dynamic of the issue,” Sen. Scott Surovell, Northern Virginia Democrat, told the Daily Press. “I think it also validates the fact that we have to get this done, and it makes it real.”
Supporters are counting on Virginia to push the ERA over the threshold as the 38th state to ratify the constitutional amendment, although significant questions remain over whether the process is still legal, given that the ERA’s last congressional deadline expired in 1982.
The newly reconstituted campaign, led by the ERA Coalition, includes young celebrity faces such as Alyssa Milano as well as some familiar names from the original effort that began in 1972, including feminist leader Gloria Steinem and actress Jane Fonda.
Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, Prince William Democrat, said the ERA’s passage is critical to ensuring equality for women, given that laws on issues such as equal pay, violence against women and pregnancy rights are subject to being revisited, repealed or overturned.
“When my rights as a woman [are] dependent on laws, because laws can change as quickly as legislators change their minds, and Supreme Court decisions that allowed me to go to college can always be reversed, but when you enshrine my constitutional rights as a human being equal to men, well, that is the only thing that is acceptable, because amendments do not expire,” she said in a Wednesday floor speech.
ERA Coalition co-President Jessica Neuwirth insisted that the amendment is silent on abortion. The relevant section reads, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
She said 23 states have equal rights amendments, with “none resulting in this outcome.”
“Abortion is a constitutional right of privacy under Roe v. Wade,” Ms. Neuwirth said in an email. “Many pro-life advocates have fervently supported the ERA, including Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who until her recent retirement was the lead Republican co-sponsor with [Rep.] Carolyn Maloney.”
Pro-life advocates have argued that courts in Connecticut and New Mexico cited the state ERAs in rulings expanding access to abortion funding.
Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said the ERA “would alter the Constitution to create a permanent right to abortion on demand, up until the moment of birth, paid for by you and I, the American taxpayers.”
“It’s even more extreme than Roe v. Wade, which in a single day struck down every pro-life law nationwide,” Ms. Quigley said.
Although the deadline for ratification by three-fourths of the states expired in 1977 — and expired again in 1982 after gaining a five-year extension — House and Senate Democrats have introduced resolutions to eliminate the deadline.
That resolution, if approved, would allow the ERA to be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution after it is ratified by 38 states.
Other questions remain. Two of the 37 states — Nevada and Illinois — ratified the ERA in the past two years, and five of the states that approved the ERA decades ago have since withdrawn their ratification.
Opponents argue that the amendment could wind up harming women by rendering invalid laws that offer additional protections, such as equal-pay measures, depending on how the courts interpret the measure.
“The ERA is out of sync with this century where women are already protected as equals in our legislation and the courts,” said Ms. Whittington.
Schlafly died in 2016, but her legacy lives on. Her daughter Anne Schlafly Cori, who now chairs the Eagle Forum, was on hand Thursday to lend her support to the 21st-century campaign to defeat the ERA.
“The idea that a couple of states can tag onto votes that were taken 50 years ago is a fraud and a cheat on our constitutional system,” said Ms. Cori. “Millions of women were inspired by my mother in the 1970s to get up get out and defeat ERA. We’re at it again today.”
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