Abortion and the Virginia Race

Monday, August 17, 2009

ROBERT F. McDONNELL, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, has an admirably detailed Web site. It devotes thousands of words to his plans to create jobs, end gridlock, improve education, enhance public safety, clean up the environment, tighten public spending . . . well, you get the idea. However, Mr. McDonnell, the former attorney general, gives relatively short shrift -- just two or three sentences -- to the topic of abortion, a subject that preoccupied him so much during his career as a lawmaker that he introduced some 35 bills to restrict access to the procedure. Mr. McDonnell is not trying to hide his absolutist opposition to abortion, which extends even to cases of rape or incest; let's just say he's not advertising it too loudly.

His Democratic opponent, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, has lately decided to make an issue of Mr. McDonnell's stance. Mr. Deeds, who favors a woman's right to choose an abortion, has issued papers specifying Mr. McDonnell's repeated votes opposing not only abortion but also access to and information about contraception. Mr. McDonnell says that his positions are in keeping with his Catholic faith.

All of this is fine and good, and fair fodder for electoral debate. So why is Mr. McDonnell's campaign complaining that it is unfair of Mr. Deeds to raise social issues?

The short answer is the Deeds message dents the moderate, pragmatic image that Mr. McDonnell has nurtured in the past few years. To win in November, Mr. McDonnell needs to appeal to centrist Democrats and independents in the state's most populous region, Northern Virginia. And a fair number of his positions -- for instance, allowing pharmacists to refuse to dispense contraceptives or banning college health centers from distributing morning-after pills while opposing abortion in all instances -- may not sit well with middle-of-the-road voters in Northern Virginia and elsewhere.

Mr. McDonnell has made much of his opposition to Democratic legislation in Congress concerning energy (cap and trade) and labor (card check) that, as governor, he would be in no position to influence. By contrast, determining access and limits on abortion remains to a large extent within a state's, and a governor's, purview. All the more so if the Supreme Court were to strike down Roe v. Wade, which could throw the entire topic of abortion into state legislatures. As Mr. McDonnell himself told the National Right to Life Committee in Arlington last year, state lawmakers are critical in determining "whether or not you're going to have a pro-life state where protections are given to the unborn consistent with federal court decisions or whether you're going to have a different kind of policy."

Mr. Deeds's strategy of stressing abortion may work or backfire; time will tell. But to suggest, as the McDonnell campaign has, that a campaign discussion about abortion "is engaging in the politics of division" is disingenuous and wrong. Thousands of Virginians have abortions every year, a decision that touches on families and futures. It's a fair and pressing topic of debate.

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