Home » An Off-Year Election Could Have Huge Consequences For Abortion Everywhere

An Off-Year Election Could Have Huge Consequences For Abortion Everywhere

Kimberly Pope Adams did not think she would ever crisscross Virginia farmland, knocking on doors and talking about the abortion procedure she got after experiencing a miscarriage 16 years ago. But over the past 15 months, that’s nearly all she has done.

“I’ll be honest with you: It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s necessary,” Adams, who is running for the House of Delegates in Virginia’s 82nd District, told HuffPost. “I cannot keep this story bottled up inside when I know how important the stakes are in this election.”

The entire Virginia legislature is on the ballot for the first time since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Republicans currently control the House, and Democrats have a small majority in the Senate. If Republicans take back the Senate, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) will get the GOP trifecta he’s long been vying for and the power to enact the 15-week abortion ban he has championed.

The results of the November election will be felt beyond Virginia: The state is the last safe haven for abortion access in the South.

“If you go southwest from Virginia, you have to go all the way to New Mexico until you reach a state that doesn’t have an abortion ban in effect,” said Jamie Lockhart, president at Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. “Not only is it critical for Virginians that we remain a key access state, but it’s critical for the whole South.”

Pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List have poured millions into the Virginia legislative elections, as have national Democrats. Youngkin and other Republicans have responded accordingly: The governor has raised millions via his political action committee, Spirit of Virginia, to fund Republicans in competitive races.

Both sides are trying to inspire voters to show up at the polls. Historically, off-year cycles — where there is no presidential or midterm election — have the lowest voter turnout, and the stakes are high. But a recent poll shows that most Virginia voters say Roe v. Wade’s repeal will play a big role in whom they vote for, and over 55% say they believe abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances.

“Had I spoken about this before? No,” Adams said of her miscarriage and abortion story. “But now I have to, because if I don’t, people may not have the right to make this decision for themselves.”

The South’s Last Abortion Access Point

Access in Virginia is critical for several reasons. Abortion is legal in the state through the second trimester, or around 26 weeks, making it not only an abortion refuge in the South but also a critical access point for abortion later in pregnancy.

Many neighboring states, including North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, have enacted strict abortion bans in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that overturned federal protections. In the first six months of 2023, there was a 60% increase in abortion care in Virginia, according to the reproductive rights organization Guttmacher Institute, which attributed the jump to traffic from other states.

“If you go southwest from Virginia, you have to go all the way to New Mexico until you reach a state that doesn’t have an abortion ban in effect.”

– Jamie Lockhart, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia

Youngkin has pushed the narrative that a 15-week abortion ban is moderate ― especially in comparison to the near-total or six-week bans being passed by contemporaries like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — but it would still have a huge impact on Virginians and patients from the rest of the region.

Just over 95% of abortions in Virginia take place before the 15-week point. But often, the people seeking abortions after 15 weeks are the most marginalized: They’re under 18, low-income and/or live in rural areas with barriers to care. Additionally, genetic testing for fatal fetal abnormalities often does not occur until 18 or 20 weeks of pregnancy, meaning a 15-week abortion ban would force people with wanted pregnancies who discover a fetal abnormality to seek necessary medical care outside of Virginia.

One recent patient at the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Charlottesville came all the way from Georgia to get an abortion, said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of the independent abortion care organization. She was a few days shy of 15 weeks pregnant by the time she arrived at the small clinic in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but only because she had faced so many barriers to care until that point.

The patient found out she was pregnant after she went to the emergency room with stomach pain. She was over seven weeks pregnant, putting her just outside of the six-week limit to get an abortion in Georgia. The patient rushed to get an appointment in North Carolina but was over 12 weeks pregnant by the time she arrived at the clinic, making her too far along to get an abortion there. She drove back to Georgia and was eventually able to secure an appointment at the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Charlottesville — an eight-hour drive from her home.

“Even with all of the abortion funds that we helped them raise, [the patient and her partner] cleared their savings. They had to get back in the car and drive right back after the abortion because her partner had to be back at work,” said Hagstrom Miller. “That’s the kind of thing that we’re dealing with.”

Youngkin’s 15-week abortion ban — along with a near-total abortion ban and a ban on the procedure later in pregnancy — died in the Virginia Senate earlier this year, but flipping the Senate would give him the power to pass it.

The governor’s political action committee, Spirit of Virginia, has proven to be a powerful weapon: In just 48 hours earlier this month, Youngkin raised $4.4 million with the help of several billionaire donors pitching in during the final fundraising stretch. He has also personally donated over $1.5 million to Spirit. In total, Youngkin has raised $19 million for the Virginia GOP via Spirit since 2022.

“The Virginia electoral environment in 2023 is really two parties talking past each other. Democrats really want to talk only about abortion, and Republicans want to talk about anything else.”

– Stephen Farnsworth, political scientist

But Republicans in purple Virginia have a big problem: No one knows how to talk about abortion restrictions without the guardrails Roe once provided. It used to be that Republicans could galvanize their base by calling for severe abortion restrictions and trigger bans. Yet they knew they would never be able to act on these political promises, which aren’t popular with mainstream voters — particularly those in suburban districts, where elections are won and lost in Virginia.

“A significant number of Americans may not have clear policies about international matters, but something like abortion is really, really close to home,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “It affects individuals in a very dramatic way, it affects families in a very dramatic way, and so it’s an effective topic.”

“Republicans might have had a more appealing environment for talking about abortion when Roe v. Wade was the law of the land because then the conversation was theoretical.”

As a result, we’re watching Republicans experiment in real time with how to handle the question of abortion in a post-Roe world.

“In many ways, the Virginia electoral environment in 2023 is really two parties talking past each other,” Farnsworth said. “Democrats really want to talk only about abortion, and Republicans want to talk about anything else.”

The Tale Of The ‘Common Sense’ 15-Week Ban

Many Republican candidates scrubbed their websites of more extreme anti-choice language and are refusing to discuss the issue in depth on the campaign trail. At the beginning of this year, GOP House of Delegates candidate John Stirrup’s website stated, in part: “John knows that life is precious and a gift from God. John will protect the sanctity of life and will always vote pro-life.” As of October, all mention of abortion or anti-choice views had been removed from his website. He did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Stirrup, who is running in a competitive district, was secretly recorded telling voters in August that he would “support a 100% ban.” (He walked back those comments shortly thereafter, saying there was not enough support for a total ban but that he would support Youngkin’s 15-week ban.)

Other Virginia Republicans are using a strategy we’ve seen at the national level: Attack Democrats for purportedly allowing no limits on abortion care. “Most people believe that abortion at the moment of birth is wrong, far beyond any reasonable limit. Not Virginia Democrats,” a voiceover says in a Republican campaign ad paid for by the GOP House and Senate caucuses. “They’ve fought to make late-term abortions the rule, not the exception.” (Abortion later in pregnancy is very rare: Less than 1% of abortions occur at 21 weeks or later, and the subset of abortions in the third trimester is even smaller. No Democrats are campaigning to change that.)

“I’ve worked in this field for almost 35 years, and I’ve never met a patient who found out they were pregnant and then decided to wait until the second trimester to get an abortion,” said Hagstrom Miller, of Whole Woman’s Health, debunking the myth that people who get abortions later in pregnancy do so as a form of birth control or because they’ve simply changed their minds.

“People want to have the care that they need as soon as they can,” she said.

If there is a streamlined message on abortion in Virginia Republicans’ playbook, it’s that Youngkin is king and his 15-week abortion ban is moderate. More and more candidates are doing mental gymnastics to prove to voters that a 15-week ban is “common sense.” Some have gone as far as claiming a 15-week ban is so moderate that it doesn’t constitute an actual ban.

“I don’t support an abortion ban. Period,” state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an OB-GYN running in a competitive district, says in a campaign ad released earlier this month. The ad goes on to describe how the Republican supports a 15-week abortion ban with exceptions.

Dunnavant tells her constituents on her campaign website that she supports restricting abortion after 15 weeks — a proposal she says is “not a ban, but legislation that reflects compassionate common sense.”

“After 15 weeks, there should be reasonable exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother and severe fetal anomalies. What I cannot accept is the current Virginia law that allows for abortion up to the moment of birth,” she adds in a campaign video on her site.

This is a misleading claim, given that Virginia’s current law only allows for abortion in the third trimester if the pregnant person’s life is at risk or continuing the pregnancy would “substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

When asked why she does not define a 15-week abortion restriction as a ban, Dunnavant told HuffPost: “I would pose that a ban is defined as none. This is not a ban. This is a conversation offering a place where we can build consensus… because we have to change the conversation from two radical extremes to something that we can do together. And that’s why my position is what it is.”

Youngkin is using this rhetoric as well. His political action committee rolled out a $1.4 million ad campaign this week saying the governor supports a “commonsense” 15-week “limit” on abortion, with exceptions.

“It’s just not true, their lies about abortion. It’s disinformation. Politics at its worst,” the ad states. “Here’s the truth: There is no ban. Virginia Republicans support a reasonable 15-week limit with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother. It’s a commonsense position.”

The handful of Democratic candidates HuffPost spoke with repeated almost word-for-word the same response: A ban is a ban is a ban.

“It’s so frustrating for me because people say that it’s a compromise but it’s not,” Adams said. “There is no compromise when you’re talking about a woman’s right to make her own decisions.”

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Democrat running against Dunnavant in the state Senate, added: “If something is legal and then it becomes illegal, that is a ban.”

VanValkenburg pointed to places like Florida, where an abortion ban started at 15 weeks but quickly became a six-week restriction. “There’s the law that’s started with and there’s the law that’s ended with, and those laws are often more strict and they’re more punitive,” he said. “We should not go down that path.”

Painting a 15-week ban as moderate is a risky move for Republicans, said Farnsworth, the University of Mary Washington political scientist.

“It makes sense for Republicans to be talking about 15 weeks. That’s an area where there could be some opportunity for softening the anti-abortion measure in a way that would be more acceptable to the electorate,” he said. “But for a lot of Republican candidates, that’s a significant change from what they’ve said in the past, and that’s a problem.”

“If you win nominations based on being pro-life, and then you talk about 15 weeks, there are plenty of pro-life voters that will see that as a betrayal,” Farnsworth added.

“There is no compromise when you’re talking about a woman’s right to make her own decisions.”

– Kimberly Pope Adams, candidate for Virginia House of Delegates

Democrats are optimistic that talking about abortion and centering the issue in their campaigns will pay off big in Virginia. It’s been a motivating issue for the voters VanValkenburg has spoken with while campaigning in Senate District 16.

“This is not some abstract issue we’re talking about ― it’s something people are seeing happen across the country,” he said. “They’re seeing, just a couple of weeks ago, the Alabama attorney general saying that they’d prosecute people who helped women cross state lines. They’re seeing women who are having to stay in parking lots of hospitals until they’re septic before they can get care. They’re seeing women come to Virginia and sleep in a parking lot overnight because they have to travel so far to get health care access.”

“When people bring it up in the community, it’s oftentimes out of fear because of the very real things they’re seeing happening across the country, but particularly in our backyard in these other Southern states.”

Not only is it a motivating issue for voters, but it’s also proven to be a winning issue. In all five states where there were referendums on abortion rights last year, voters chose to protect abortion access. In Virginia, Democrats centered abortion rights in two critical races earlier this year: a special election in January and a primary in June. Both candidates — Aaron Rouse and Lashrecse Aird, who were backed by pro-choice groups — won their seats.

“It’s so important for Virginians to know that abortion is on the ballot and to know that our rights are at risk,” said Lockhart, of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. “We know that abortion rights are a motivating issue for voters and we’ve seen that over and over again: When races are about abortion, abortion rights win.”


October 2023