RICHMOND, Va. – Hundreds of women locked arms and stood mute outside the Virginia State Capitol on Monday to protest a wave of anti-abortion legislation coursing through the General Assembly.
Capitol and state police officers, there to ensure order, estimated the crowd to be more than 1,000 people -- mostly women. The crowd formed a human cordon through which legislators walked before Monday's floor sessions of the Republican-controlled legislature.
The silent protest was over bills that would define embryos as humans and criminalize their destruction, require "transvaginal" ultrasounds of women seeking abortions, and cut state aid to poor women seeking abortions.
Molly Vick of Richmond said it was her first time to take part in a protest, but the issue was too infuriating and compelling. On her lavender shirt, she wore a sticker that said "Say No to State-Mandated Rape." Just beneath the beltline of her blue jeans was a strip of yellow tape that read "Private Property: Keep Out."
One organizer said the event took root, was organized and publicized almost wholly through Facebook and other social media after last week's votes on landmark anti-abortion bills racing through a legislature dominated for the first time by conservative Republicans.
"We could feel that there was a lot of outrage and emotion and people talking about these issues," said Sarah Okolita, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate student who helped arrange the Monday morning event.
The protest also came as Virginia's highly partisan debate over abortion legislation moved into the realm of comedy and national pop culture when a segment on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" lampooned ultrasound bills sponsored by Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell County, and Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier.
Initially, participants were kept off the interior of Capitol Square. They stood in a queue that stretched nearly three blocks on a sidewalk along the eastern perimeter of the Capitol campus. Later, after many legislators had already taken the 170-yard walk from their office building to the Capitol for their 11:30 a.m. caucus meetings and floor sessions afterward, they were allowed to take up positions inside Capitol Square.
Two or three deep, protesters lined both sides of the primary sidewalk from the General Assembly Building toward the Capitol's west door.
Reaction from legislators varied, largely based on party affiliation.
"God bless y'all. You're doing the right thing," Del. Algie T. Howell, D-Norfolk, said as he walked past the unspeaking throng.
Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, acknowledged it was "an impressive crowd."
"So there's opposition to this measure. So what's new about that?" said Marshall, the sponsor of the "personhood" legislation that could outlaw all abortions and, critics claim, some forms of contraception in Virginia if the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion is reversed. The bill passed the House on a vote of 66-32 and is pending before the Senate Education and Health Committee.
Both chambers have passed legislation that would force women seeking abortions to first undergo an ultrasound examination to determine a gestational age for the fetus. In the procedure, a wand-like device is inserted and used to send out sound waves.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, a socially conservative Catholic, has said he will sign the ultrasound bill, but has taken no position on Marshall's personhood bill, a spokesman said last week.
At Monday's protest, the ultrasound bill provoked more scorn than Marshall's.
"My decision to come here today is based on the fact that what states do impacts the rest of the nation," said Carole Lewis-Anderson, who traveled snow-covered roads from Washington, D.C., for the Presidents Day event. "To be able to intrude into a woman's body by law? That's beyond belief!"