The Virginia chapter of NARAL Pro-Choice America said Tuesday that it will not endorse any candidate in this fall's governor's race, citing a lack of support for abortion rights among the two leading candidates.
The group endorsed Democrats for lieutenant governor, attorney general and most delegate races but said Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine failed to earn its backing for governor because of his support for some abortion restrictions.
The group condemned Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore as an "extremely anti-choice" candidate, and it charged that he would sign legislation to criminalize abortion and restrict access to contraceptives if given the chance.
"Tim Kaine . . . has said he would not sign such legislation, but he embraces many of the restrictions on a woman's right to choose that are opposed by NARAL," the group's statement said. "We cannot therefore offer any endorsement in this year's race for governor."
The statement went on to say that despite the group's concerns about Kaine's positions, "we see more hope for the women of Virginia in Kaine's candidacy."
Ann O'Hanlon, executive director of the abortion rights group and a former Washington Post reporter, said the group also decided not to endorse Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running for governor as an independent, because his recent support for abortion rights is more crucial in the state Senate, where he chairs the Education and Health Committee.
"We really want him to be right where he is," O'Hanlon said.
Kaine's failure to win the group's endorsement reflects his complex position on abortion.
Kaine, a practicing Catholic, said he has a religious opposition to abortion and has at times declared himself to be "pro-life." He also wants to ban the procedure that opponents call "partial birth" abortion and supports parental consent and notification laws.
But he also said he is a "pro-choice" candidate who does not want to criminalize women or doctors involved in abortions.
"My position on this issue is firm," Kaine said in a statement. "I support appropriate and reasonable checks on the right to abortion, including a ban on partial-birth abortion, so we can protect women's health and ensure this monumental decision is made with all the facts in hand."
O'Hanlon has been critical of Kaine's position. She said Tuesday that his willingness to accept government interference in abortion decisions is difficult for abortion rights advocates to accept.
"Tim has spoken openly about his ambivalence, his strong feelings in two different directions on this issue," she said. "We can't endorse him. We just can't endorse him given some of the things he's said."
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Kilgore, said the Republican candidate did not expect NARAL's endorsement, but he challenged the group's claim that Kilgore would restrict access to contraception.
"That's ludicrous," Murtaugh said.
O'Hanlon said Kilgore has accepted the endorsement of several groups that believe life begins at fertilization. Many contraceptives work to prevent pregnancy after fertilization occurs, she said.
"We'd love to hear from Kilgore that he would fight to protect birth control," she said. "We have only seen evidence to the contrary."
Kilgore has said he is a "pro-life" candidate opposed to abortion except in cases of rape or incest or where the abortion would save a mother's life. But he has refused to say whether he would sign a bill banning abortion with those exceptions if given the chance.
That has put him at odds with some of his supporters who oppose abortion. They have urged him to make a clearer statement.
"All candidates could do an even better job of clarifying the issue for voters," said Victoria Cobb, executive director of the nonprofit Family Foundation, which opposes abortion. "It is really up to the candidates to make sure that voters understand where they stand on this issue."
Cobb criticized Kaine for trying to muddy the issue with references to his religious beliefs.
"For many, hearing a candidate say that he holds a deep moral belief, but in the same breath says he's unwilling to apply that moral belief, rings hollow," she said. "That is going to be a difficult sell for any candidate."