Virginia’s Pro-Life Landscape: An Analysis

Prolife and pro-abortion legislation came to a mutual draw in this year’s short legislative session.

The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond
The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond (photo: Lucy Clark / Shutterstock)

Virginia’s General Assembly, the Commonwealth’s legislature, adjourned Feb. 25. A reconvened session is planned for April 12 to deal with any vetoes by Governor Youngkin and state budget matters.

Prolife and pro-abortion legislation came to a mutual draw in this year’s short session. (The General Assembly sits for an extended period in even-numbered years and a shorter session in odd.) Pro-life bills passed by the Republican House of Delegates — including a Born Alive Protection Act — went to die in committee in the Democratic Senate. Pro-abortion bills passed by the Senate — including a state constitutional amendment to establish a “fundamental right to reproductive freedom” in Virginia — were stopped in the House of Delegates.

The Virginia “Defending Life Day” March, held Feb. 1, prioritized the defeat of the state constitutional amendment as well as the enactment of the Born Alive Protection Act and several other bills. Born Alive Protections became a controversy when former Governor Ralph Northam was asked, in a 2019 radio interview, if he would support legislation then being pushed by Fairfax County Democratic Delegate Kathy Tran to repeal all restrictions through birth on abortion in Virginia. Going beyond the bill, Northam appeared to support medical negligence of handicapped newborns, saying “The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother” as to the child’s fate.

When Democrats took control of the Virginia Legislature in 2019, they repealed all pro-life laws then on the books, branding them “TRAP” (targeted restrictions on abortion providers) legislation. That mentality likely led to Senate defeat of the Born Alive Protection Act this session, as well as an informed consent bill that would have restored the requirement that women be informed of a child’s gestational development at the time of a proposed abortion.

Perhaps the least controversial prolife bill — which nevertheless failed — was legislation directing the state to develop a comprehensive website of abortion alternatives available to women. The bill, which died in a Senate committee, almost certainly faced the same opposition from pro-abortionists faced by pro-life pregnancy centers, the objects of nationwide rhetorical attacks and physical assaults.

Governor Youngkin had asked the state budget be amended so that Virginia follow the federal Hyde Amendment for Medicaid-funded abortions. The Hyde Amendment currently funds Medicaid abortions in cases of danger to the mother’s life, rape or incest. Virginia uses state money for a fourth category, which Youngkin asked to eliminate: paying for abortions if the unborn child might be born with disabilities. The House of Delegates took it out but the Senate put it back in. Expect a fight when the General Assembly reconvenes April 12 to deal with executive messages and vetoes.

Some might look at this year’s legislature as much ado and nothing, but that’s not true. Given the partisan split between the two chambers, it was likely that no abortion legislation — pro-life or pro-abortion — was going to emerge.

This year’s session was more about drawing redlines. Virginia elects a new legislature Nov. 7, and Democrats will run on “defending women’s rights” from “extremism.” Their minimum goal will be to preserve the status quo — no prolife legislation after its repeal in 2020 — by holding the State Senate. Their ideal would be to take back the House of Delegates.

Recapture of the legislature would do two things: allow Democrats to send pro-abortion legislation to Youngkin who, though likely to veto it, would let them tar a Governor with possible presidential aspirations as “extreme.” More importantly, it would let them pass a state constitutional amendment enshrining abortion in Virginia and give them the argument why they should be re-elected in 2025. (Amendments must pass the legislature twice before going to popular referendum.)

Virginia is considered a “purple” state — one that could flip either way in elections — and its off-year elections treated as a bellwether for the next presidential campaign. How abortion might play among suburban voters (the DC suburbs and the Richmond-Norfolk corridor) could influence Democrats’ national playbook in 2024.

Though the current session of the legislature may have been mostly characterized by each side posturing to its base, the fact that a pro-abortion state constitutional amendment failed is enormously important. Had it passed — which might have been possible if a few weak-kneed Republicans in the lower house (which they control by 2-3 votes) caved — it would have given Democrats the initiative, going into the November elections, to push even harder for the constitutional change.