RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on Tuesday condemned the leak of a draft opinion suggesting the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing access to abortion, but suggested he supports such a ruling, which would return the question of abortion rights to the states.
“I believe that the state should be able to take on this responsibility. I do believe, just like in determining what our education budget should be, what our funding for law enforcement should be, how we handle our taxes at the state level — those are state decisions,” Youngkin told reporters after speaking at an event launching new state resources for foster children.
Asked if he would pursue a legislative agenda next year featuring a ban on abortions after 15 weeks or 20 weeks, Youngkin demurred. “I can’t speculate on anything until this, in fact, becomes final,” he said.
His comments fueled a sense of alarm raised by Virginia Democrats on Tuesday.
“I want to make sure every Virginian knows that abortion is legal today in Virginia, and it will remain legal regardless of this Supreme Court decision,” state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), who sponsored a bill in 2020 that eliminated some abortion restrictions, said in a news release. “I will continue to fight every day to protect our progress and ensure that Virginia remains a safe haven for abortion rights.”
“Never has it been more important for states to step up and protect the rights that the federal government fails to uphold,” House Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Charniele L. Herring (Alexandria) said in a written statement. “Be assured that we will do everything in [our] power to stop any attempt by Governor Youngkin or Republican legislators to undermine reproductive rights in Virginia.”
Youngkin said his position should be no surprise. “I think I’ve been clear — I’m pro-life, and I’ve made that very clear from the moment I announced my candidacy,” he said. Youngkin marched last week in an antiabortion rally in Richmond just as the General Assembly was convening a session to take up vetoes and bill amendments issued by the governor.
While Youngkin’s personal opposition to abortion has always been clear, he was cagey on the campaign trail last year about how he would translate that into policy. At one point last summer Youngkin was surreptitiously recorded telling someone at a campaign event that he could not be open about his antiabortion agenda for fear of losing votes.
“When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get,” Youngkin said in the video.
Republicans did take a House majority in the General Assembly last fall, but did not pursue many abortion-related bills during this year’s session. Only three antiabortion bills got out of the House this year, and they were all quashed in the Senate. Democrats hold a 21-to-19 majority in the Senate and have vowed to protect access to abortions, though Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) has suggested that he is open to further restrictions.
State Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R) announced in January that he was withdrawing Virginia from a legal brief supporting a woman’s right to an abortion and called on the high court to overturn Roe v. Wade.
On Tuesday, Youngkin called the leak of the draft Supreme Court decision an “unbelievable breach of confidence” that was “done in order to create chaos and put pressure on elected officials.” The draft opinion was obtained by Politico.
He declined to specify what policies he will pursue if the high court hands the issue back to the states.
“We … have to wait until the final decision, and I’ll work with our legislature at that point,” he said. But he added that he believes there are areas of potential agreement on policy.
“There’s a lot of common ground on this topic. We want fewer abortions in Virginia, not more. We in fact don’t believe that you should be able to get an abortion all the way up through and including birth. We in fact think that parents should be engaged in their children’s lives, particularly making tough decisions for their children who are minors,” he said.
Virginia law allows abortions after the second trimester only in cases where “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”
Public funding of abortions, through Medicaid, is allowed in Virginia only in certain cases in which the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest, in which a doctor certifies that the fetus has “incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency,” or in which the life or health of the mother is at risk.
Opinion polls have consistently found that most Virginians support legal access to abortions and favor allowing access to abortions during the third trimester if the mother’s health is at risk.
Abortion politics took center stage in Virginia in 2012, when Republicans, who had already controlled the governor’s mansion and House, picked up control of the Senate. The GOP advanced a host of conservative legislation, including a bill that would have required most women having an abortion to first undergo a vaginal ultrasound.
There was intense backlash over the invasive nature of the test, drawing international attention and ridicule from late-night comedians before it was amended to require an abdominal ultrasound instead. In a string of successful elections after that, Democrats used the episode to claim the GOP was waging a “war on women” — the party’s chief rallying cry until anti-Trump sentiment emerged as an even more powerful galvanizing force.
Despite his promise to go “on offense” once elected, Youngkin has made few public efforts to advance the cause beyond the seemingly symbolic gesture of declaring a senior staffer his “ambassador for unborn children.”
Youngkin made one attempt to restrict abortion rights this year with an amendment to a bill to prohibit surrogacy contracts from requiring a surrogate mother to undergo an abortion or “selective reduction,” meaning the abortion of one or more fetuses in the case of multiples.
Youngkin recommended removing a provision that said such contracts also cannot prohibit the surrogate from seeking an abortion. The Senate rejected that amendment on a party-line vote, so the bill went back to Youngkin in its original form. He can sign it, allow it to take effect without his signature or veto it, with the General Assembly having no chance to override a potential veto.
Tarina Keene, executive director of Pro-Choice Virginia, said she thinks the draft ruling could help galvanize voters on an issue that she said seemed to fade for many people amid the tumult of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“There will be an uprising. People will wake up — they have already — and they will show up,” she said. “They will beat down the doors of their legislators. They will get involved. And that is something you can count on.”