It’s my first day as an intern at NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, I’m getting up to speed on recent legislation, and I can’t believe it: Medication Abortion ‘Reversal’ Bill, Bill Prohibiting Abortion Insurance Coverage, ‘Humanity of the Unborn Child’ Bill, and more.
Over the same set of months that these bills were introduced, my home state of Virginia flipped both houses of our legislature blue and passed a sweeping repeal of medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion. I had joked with my family and friends that I was applying to work in Ohio because they needed my help much more than Virginia did, but I had no idea how right I was.
I have been lucky to have a front-row seat to Virginia’s slide from red to purple to solid blue, and I hope that my experiences can help Ohio find its way down a similar path.
In the fall of my 10th grade year, my congresswoman paid a visit to my chemistry class. She was promoting her program for young women in STEM, and I thought, “Wow! Feminism, science, and policy all coming together, how cool is that?” But when I did some deeper digging, the contradictions I found were stunning. This representative was actively supporting a transvaginal ultrasound bill, which would require people seeking abortions to undergo an invasive, medically unnecessary procedure – even though an abdominal ultrasound was already required by law. Whatever pro-woman, pro-science image she was trying to put forward, her voting record betrayed it. For the first time, I became aware that I lived in a liberal bubble in an otherwise conservative state. The House of Delegates had a massive Republican majority, and my congresswoman was clearly representing interests other than mine. But we were on the cusp of something: the governor was pro-choice, and the State Senate was split right down the middle. I was too young to vote, but I saw an opportunity to tip the scales.
That spring, my synagogue gave me the chance to travel to DC and lobby that very congresswoman. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere with her on the abortion front, but I was still offended by her disregard for science. I chose to advocate for embryonic stem cell research, and I stayed up late into the night compiling trusted sources and statistics, as well as identifying the Jewish values that motivated my activism. I was worried that she would ignore the science, but I assumed that her reliance on Christianity in legislating would make her respect a faith-based approach coming from me.
Not only was I sorely mistaken, but I didn’t even get to speak with her directly. When we arrived at her office, bright-eyed students excited to engage in politics for the first time, a legislative aide informed us that we would be meeting with him instead. I felt dismissed and unimportant, especially considering the work that I had put into perfecting my speech, but I took a deep breath and confidently started reading it to the aide. He quickly informed me that the congresswoman would always oppose embryonic stem cell research because it used aborted tissue, and abortion constituted murder. Confused, I reiterated my well-researched argument; regardless of her opinion on abortion, embryonic stem cells overwhelmingly come from excess embryos created for the purpose of in vitro fertilization, which would otherwise be frozen indefinitely with no benefit to anyone. I explained the hypocrisy in her case, contrasting the so-called “loss of life” that would result from freezing these embryos with the lives that could be saved by using them for research. But the aide didn’t want to hear it. I was frustrated and angry, but I had no power to change his mind and no power to vote her out.
This attitude from legislators is something I’ve already encountered in Ohio politics: arrogant intransigence that goes unchecked simply because unfair maps keep political repercussions to a minimum. Ohioans can’t vote their representatives out because of absurdly gerrymandered maps, and I couldn’t vote my representative out because I was too young. However, there are other ways to wield influence. Although I knew almost nothing about politics at the time, I was too furious to quit. Like the Ohioans I’ve met, I took to organizing, seizing the opportunity to become the first intern on the campaign to oust that incumbent congresswoman.
Little did I know, my personal vendetta against one anti-science representative fell perfectly in step with the Blue Wave that was cresting over Virginia. From there, it has been a whirlwind of door-knocking and phone banking and victory parties. Just a few months into my political engagement, Virginia elected a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. The next summer swept my candidate through a six-way primary with 42% of the vote, defeating the congresswoman that I had lobbied and flipping a seat that had been Republican-held for 38 years. The following election cycle I worked on a delegate campaign, this time sailing through a four-way primary to a victory in the general, making my candidate the first Hindu representative in the Virginia General Assembly. By the time I was hired by the Senate of Virginia last summer, both houses of the legislature boasted Democratic majorities and unprecedented racial and gender diversity.
So what changed? Why were Virginians content to be represented by Republicans one day and out knocking doors for Democrats the next? Some people truly had a change of heart – especially after the 2016 election – but for the most part, people who had always leaned left just became informed and engaged.
Everyone has their individual story of what finally swung them into action: the Women’s March, the Parkland shooting, homophobic comments from a member of our school board. And perhaps most importantly, person-to-person connection.
I see how people light up when I ask them at their door what issues they are passionate about. I see the respect that I gain from people who disagree with me when I am willing to empathize with their perspective. In my opinion, Virginia transformed itself with the sheer volume of connections made: knocking every door and then knocking it again and then knocking it again. Most people are good people, and with a little conversation and a little education, many people are willing to fight for the good causes they believe in.
With a legislature that reflects the diversity of Virginia more strongly than ever before – including our first female Speaker of the House of Delegates in the General Assembly’s 400-year history – it is no wonder that reproductive rights are finally being respected and protected in my home state. Most people agree on this issue; it is just a matter of making the people’s voices heard.
I am so fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time, the result of a terrific high school science education, a religion that emphasizes the need for justice, and a community that is committed to authentic representation.
Although I’ve just dipped one toe into reproductive rights advocacy in Ohio, I see the same spark: young people disillusioned with their condescending and ignorant legislators, a fundamental devotion to inclusion and justice, and a vast, vast majority of people who agree on the need for collaborative change. I am proud of the work that I’ve done in Virginia, but that cultural shift was already under way. The same freedoms feel just out of reach for Ohio, which makes me even more excited about helping them be realized. And hey, it’s not Ohio’s fault that it’s behind Virginia; it’s further inland.
The Blue Wave is just over the horizon.