Virginia at an Abortion Crossroads: Nov. 7 Election Could Serve as a Referendum on a 15-Week Limit

Will the Old Dominion State move toward an abortion limit or expansion?

A Virginia pro-lifer hold a sign among others on April 2, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
A Virginia pro-lifer hold a sign among others on April 2, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (photo: Jerome460/Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — Virginia, the only state in the South that has not moved to limit abortions after Roe v. Wade was overturned, faces a test on the issue in its upcoming election with national implications.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has embraced limiting abortion to 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape and incest and to save the life of the mother, and accused Democrats of backing abortion without limits.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidates have made the abortion issue a central part of their campaigns, with ads claiming that Republicans would fully ban abortion if they had control of the Virginia General Assembly.

The Nov. 7 elections include all 140 seats in the state’s currently divided Legislature, where the GOP has narrow control of the House of Delegates, and the Senate, where Democrats have a slim majority.

‘Middle-Ground’ Stance

Frank Cannon, chief political strategist at Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, called the state “a fascinating test case for 2024” in an Oct. 25 call with reporters.

“The Democratic strategy is to go all-in on abortions,” he said and highlighted the media tracking firm AdImpact’s findings that, as of Oct. 17, 42% of the Democratic ads mention abortion, while only 3% of the Republican ads talk about abortion.

He said that while Democrats count on abortion as “the silver bullet to turn Virginia, which is nominally a blue state anyway, back to the blue team in 2023,” Youngkin has “decided to take a stand on contrasting the extremism of the Democrats with his idea of a 15-week bill.”

J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter and election handicapper at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told the Register that Youngkin has been pushing for a 15-week limit as “a reasonable middle ground” and has been able to get Republican candidates in key districts behind the proposal.

Cannon believes the 15-week limit is “solid ground” for Republicans, citing January polling that found that 60% of Virginians agree with the 15-week limit. An October Washington Post poll found that 46% of Virginia’s likely voters supported a 15-week limit, while 47% were opposed to one.

One question is whether Youngkin’s popularity in the state will extend to the abortion issue with his supporters. Coleman noted recent polling from Christopher Newport University, which found that Youngkin had a 55% approval rating from Virginians, but 54% opposed the 15-week limit, with 39% supporting it.

However, Coleman also wondered if Democrats “risk being seen as too one note on the abortion issue” in their messaging, which has made it a central focus in their campaigns, noting the importance of other issues to Virginia voters. The October Washington Post poll found that education, the economy, crime and gun policy all ranked higher than abortion as “very important” issues to Virginia voters.

Messaging Battles

Part of the Democratic response to Youngkin’s messaging on the 15-week limit is to present it as a “ban” on abortion. Virginia’s current law permits abortion up through 26 weeks of pregnancy. Coleman believes this could play into voters’ “status quo bias” or tendency to leave current laws in place. He added that Youngkin’s stance is counting on the electorate to make “a distinction between a 15-week limit and a total ban” on an issue that often doesn’t leave much room for nuance.

Democrats have framed support for a 15-week limit as part of a wider attempt by Republicans to ban all abortion in their ad campaigns. Cannon highlighted examples of Democratic candidates in key races misrepresenting the GOP candidate’s position “in order to try to position the Republicans as the extremists.”

In the state’s 27th District Senate race, Democrat Joel Griffin ran an ad claiming his GOP opponent, Tara Durant, supports “letting Virginia ban abortions with no exceptions.” Durant called the ad “misinformation” and noted her support for a “15-week limit on abortion, with exceptions for rape, incest, and to protect the life of the mother.”

Another example Cannon gave was in the state Senate race in the state’s 24th District, where Democratic incumbent Monty Mason, of Williamsburg, claimed in campaign ads that his Republican opponent, Danny Diggs, would “pass a new ban on abortion in Virginia imposing radical new restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom, jailing doctors for providing lifesaving care,” and that he “promised to pass a sweeping new ban on abortion in Virginia making OB-GYNs felons.”

Diggs denied these claims regarding jailing doctors and said he was “not for a ban,” but “for a limit on abortions up to 15 weeks, and after that, following terrible crimes of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is endangered.”

Republican messaging around the issue has been contrasting the 15-week limit with Democrats’ push for abortion without limits.

In September, a Republican ad highlighted past attempts by Virginia Democrats to pass legislation providing unlimited abortion access. This included 2019 remarks from Democratic Delegate Kathy Tran, who is running for reelection in District 18, in which she stated that her bill would allow abortions through the third trimester of pregnancy without limits, including when a woman is about to give birth. Tran later said that she misspoke in those statements about her bill.

A more recent amendment, introduced this year in the General Assembly, would add a right to abortion to the state Constitution. The amendment states that “every individual has the fundamental right to reproductive freedom” and was sponsored by then-state senator, now U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan, D-Va., who reportedly testified at the time that third-trimester abortions only occur if something is “horribly wrong.” She said decisions on the matter “should be made by patients and their providers,” when being questioned about whether the amendment would create a right to abortion at any point in pregnancy.

Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, told the Register that in the organization’s work in the state, “we always want to save as many lives as we can, and a 15-week bill would begin to do that.” For Catholics, he emphasized the “duty to vote in these elections and to become informed about the principles and the candidates.”

He also pointed out a feature on the conference’s resource hub to help voters locate their new districts in light of the state’s recent redistricting.

Caruso said that in addition to the conference’s goal of protecting unborn life at 15 weeks, they “very strongly oppose any attempt to expand abortion,” including the effort this year by Democrats in the state Legislature to “enshrine a so-called right to abortion in the state Constitution.”

Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond and Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington wrote to Virginia Catholics in September, saying that “much is at stake” in the upcoming election and “addressing the tragedy of abortion is the ‘preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.’” They urged voters to “protect life to the fullest extent possible.”

Bishop Burbidge, who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, wrote to the faithful again on Oct. 18 that “pro-abortion organizations are actively involved in local elections.”

“Therefore,” he said, “we must offer a counternarrative by ensuring that pro-life issues are front of mind for Catholic voters.”