Abortion was not a frequent topic of conversation during Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for Virginia governor. He avoided the subject in ads and speeches. While the Republican governor-elect calls himself “pro-life,” he has not elaborated on how his personal views on abortion might impact policy in the commonwealth.
In a conversation that was secretly recorded this summer, Youngkin said at a campaign event that his relative silence on the issue was intentional: While he couldn’t talk much about abortion on the campaign trail for fear of alienating independent voters, he said, he would “start going on offense” once elected.
In 2019, when Democrats secured control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the Virginia legislature for the first time in over two decades, Virginia became a “haven” for abortion rights, known for its liberal legislation, said Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, a network of abortion clinics with two locations in Virginia. Now that Republicans have won the governor’s mansion and control of the House of Delegates, while Democrats keep control of the Senate, Virginia could try to bring back many of the restrictions that Democrats have worked to dismantle, or work to pass new bills that could reshape abortion care across the state.
Youngkin’s win comes two months after Texas banned nearly all abortions — and one month before the U.S. Supreme Court hears a case out of Mississippi with the potential to bring down Roe v. Wade. That kind of extreme antiabortion legislation won’t fly in Virginia, a state that voted for Joe Biden by 10 points in 2020, said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University and author of “Abortion and the Law in America.” When asked about the Texas law directly, Youngkin said he’s not interested in passing similar legislation in Virginia “today,” calling it “unworkable” and “confusing.”
Abortion rights are supported in Virginia, where 55 percent of voters believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2014 Pew study. Yet exit polls show that abortion was not one of the top issues driving voters’ decisions on Tuesday. According to The Washington Post, Virginia voters said they considered the economy or education to be the most important issue this year. Less than one-tenth of all voters listed abortion as their No. 1 issue. That could change if the legislature were to pass a sweeping antiabortion bill.
“Youngkin strikes me as a deeply pragmatic guy,” Ziegler said. “I haven’t seen anything yet to make me think that abortion is an issue where he’s willing to sacrifice the suburban voters, especially women.”
Antiabortion activists in the state say they’ll be pushing Youngkin to make good on his promise to “stand for life.” Students for Life Action, an antiabortion group headquartered in Fredericksburg, has already started making plans to work with Virginia Republicans to introduce “heartbeat” legislation, which bans abortion at six weeks’ gestation, said Dustin Curtis, the group’s executive director. With Republican control restored in the Virginia House — Republicans have secured at least 50 seats, with several races still too close to call — Curtis said he could see the state banning abortion at six weeks.
“Let’s not forget, we also have a super strong pro-life lieutenant governor,” he said, referring to Winsome Sears, Virginia’s lieutenant governor-elect, who has promised to support heartbeat legislation. “She would serve as the tiebreaking vote in the state Senate.”
While antiabortion activists may pressure Youngkin to focus on the issue, experts expect that Republicans may struggle to pass any major antiabortion legislation in the next two years with Democrats controlling the Senate. Their changes hinge on a few “wild card” state senators, including outspoken antiabortion Democrat Joe Morrissey. Antiabortion legislation could languish even in a Republican-controlled House of Delegates, where some suburban moderates may want to steer clear of the issue entirely.
Until this election, Democrats had been gaining ground in Virginia since 2014, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe became governor. Before that, Hagstrom Miller said, Virginia was a particularly “restrictive state” on abortion rights. Several clinics were forced to close in the early 2010s when Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) insisted that they retroactively comply with new restrictions that led many to alter the structure and design of their facilities.
“It was awful,” said Jill Abbey, an administrator at the Richmond Medical Center for Women who has been working in abortion care for 30 years.
Her clinic was forced to make several significant changes, like installing additional sinks and widening their hallways. The restrictions were more difficult to adapt to than they might sound, she said.
“We survived with a lot of hard work.”
Democrats mobilized to combat those restrictions as soon as they gained some control in the legislature in 2014. Six years later, in 2020, they passed a landmark piece of legislation that eliminated a long list of Republican regulations, including a 24-hour waiting period and a rule that nurse practitioners could not perform first-trimester abortions.
“We know this is just one step in unraveling decades of anti-woman legislation,” state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond) said at a January 2020 news conference. “If there was ever a time to respect a woman’s autonomy, that time is now. ”
The restrictions that were lifted in 2020 “had a very positive effect very quickly,” said Hagstrom Miller. One of the Whole Woman’s Health clinics now employs a nurse practitioner to offer medication abortions, she said. Patients traveling long distances no longer have to stay overnight. Without the 24-hour waiting period, they can complete the procedure in a day.
These changes were harmful to women, said Curtis, with Students for Life Action. The restrictions had been “safety precautions,” he said. “Stripping those is never good for the health of the mother.”
Virginia barely passed that piece of legislation in 2020, even with Democrats in control of both houses. The bill only squeezed through because the lieutenant governor, a Democrat who supported abortion rights, was the tiebreaking vote.
Now, abortion clinics fear what might happen to that legislation.
“We’re very much worried about how things may go,” said Abbey. “The headline in today’s paper is that he’s planning to change the direction [on abortion rights]. I’m afraid that change will be a U-turn.”
Hagstrom Miller oversees four abortion clinics in Texas, in addition to the two in Virginia.
As she’s been dealing with the impacts of the Texas law and preparing for the upcoming Supreme Court case in Mississippi, Hagstrom Miller says she’s been thinking about “haven states,” places where patients with means will be able to access abortion even if Roe falls. If the Democrats had stayed in power in Virginia, she said, they might have codified Roe, enshrining a pregnant person’s right to an abortion in the state constitution, as 15 states and the District of Columbia have already done.
Now, she said, there’s almost no chance.