Darren Marcy: A powerful political moment at local forum
There came a moment Monday evening at the legislative forum when you could hear a pin drop.
The crowd of about 40 fell completely silent as Rep. Kathleen James recounted the struggle she went through personally as the Vermont House of Representatives wrestled with House Bill 57.
The legislation, which passed in the House and is now in the Senate, would protect a woman's right to an abortion no matter what might happen at the federal level.
No other issue I've ever encountered — not gun control, not same-sex marriage, nothing — enflames passions the way the debate over a women's right to control her own reproductive health does.
That's why the moment at the forum was so powerful.
The emotionally loaded topic surely split the room.
Not a paper ruffled. Nobody coughed. All eyes were on the three representatives seated at the table in front of them.
James, who was a co-sponsor of the legislation, as well as Cynthia Browning and Linda Joy Sullivan, all voted for the bill.
Monday evening they explained their vote and they expressed the turmoil that ate at them as they read the letters and emails you sent to them asking them to vote one way or the other.
Many of those letter writers were no-doubt in the audience as the women shared their deep feelings about the issue.
"I learned what it means to be the representative of 8,000 people in the people's house," James said during her turn to explain her vote.
James, who said she made up her mind a long time ago that she supported a woman's right to choose, was most touched by the letters that opposed abortion.
"The letters that touched my heart were against abortion," James said. "These people are rooted in faith and conviction."
As James, a devoted defender of choice, faced a vote on that very issue, she said she couldn't sleep as she struggled with how to best represent a population passionately split on the issue.
Clearly speaking from the heart, James looked into the eyes of her constituents and told them that she didn't make her decision lightly.
She also told them that representing them was the finest and highest privilege and calling she's ever had.
Browning and Sullivan also spoke from the heart.
Sullivan said the hardest part for her in dealing with the abortion issue is that the H.57 issue was a debate about morality.
"We're not charged with writing laws based on a morality code," Sullivan said, adding that legislators write laws based on laws.
Browning, said that events like the one Monday night are why, in her opinion, legislators in Vermont struggle so much with such issues.
She said the fact that Vermont is so small and voters have regular access to their elected leaders, means the hard issues are even more personal.
We take it very, very seriously. We were elected to make these hard decisions," Browning said. "It's part of Vermont being so small — it's part of what makes us strong."
The abortion debate is not over. The House of Representatives has done its part, but now, it's up to the Senate.
There are letters and columns about this issue in my file that will be published in upcoming issues. I'm honestly sorry I can't run them this week, but timing is everything. We can't come back to town meeting letters next week.
Darren Marcy is the editor of the Manchester Journal. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.
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