The statement has prompted many supporters and opponents to believe that he has modified one of his core political stances. Some suspect he has done so to improve his chances of being picked as a running mate for presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose own position on abortion has shifted over time but makes exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the woman.
“That shocks me,’’ said Olivia Gans, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, which endorsed McDonnell for governor. “I have never heard him make those comments. It was certainly not his position when he ran for attorney general or governor.’’
But McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said the governor’s position has not changed. It has been misunderstood, he said, over the past two decades. He did not explain why McDonnell had not tried harder to correct the record if that was the case.
Since McDonnell’s days as a delegate from Virginia Beach, countless news accounts have reported that he opposes abortion except when the woman’s life is in danger.
Martin acknowledged that was how McDonnell’s position had been reported but said those news accounts had been in error. Martin pointed to one newspaper article in 1996, when McDonnell was a delegate, that mentioned rape and incest in connection with McDonnell’s stance. It described McDonnell as someone who
“opposes abortions except when the life of the mother is at stake, but from the public policy standpoint realizes that exceptions also should be made in the case of rape or incest.’’
In a statement issued to The Washington Post last month in response to criticism from Democrats of an abortion bill being debated in Richmond, Martin said: “The governor’s position is he is pro-life with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.”
Once one of the most conservative voices in the Virginia General Assembly, McDonnell has shied away from talking about social issues in recent years. Instead, as the popular governor of a state that could help determine the winner of the presidential race and the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, he speaks mostly of jobs and schools. He tries to strike a middle ground on policies favored by the conservative wing of his party.
Political observers say McDonnell’s inclusion of rape and incest exceptions could help him on the national stage, allowing him to appeal to conservatives who oppose abortion rights while picking up the backing of moderates and independents.
A more conservative abortion view might have helped McDonnell while running for the legislature or in a Republican primary, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. But it would not be a plus for a GOP vice-presidential nominee or a U.S. Senate candidate, he added.