Yesli Vega — the GOP nominee in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District vying to unseat Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) — drew outrage Monday after audio published by Axios Richmond appeared to capture her theorizing inaccurately about why rape might not lead to pregnancy in a conversation about abortion and exceptions to abortion bans.
Vega’s comments perhaps mark the opening salvo in the role abortion policy will play in the 7th District race following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — a development that political analysts have anticipated could energize Democratic voters in a midterm election year in which Republicans have claimed much of the momentum.
And Vega’s remarks, political scientist Stephen Farnsworth said, immediately “add fuel to that fire.” Her comments elicited swift condemnation from Virginia Democrats and drew comparisons to other Republican politicians who infamously tanked their campaigns after making controversial comments about abortion and rape.
Axios published the audio Monday and said it came from a campaign event in Stafford County last month. The outlet said the tape captured an exchange between Vega, who is a Prince William County supervisor, and an unknown person who suggested to Vega, “I’ve actually heard it’s harder for a woman to get pregnant if she’s been raped. Have you heard that?”
Vega responded: “Well, maybe because there’s so much going on in the body, I don’t know. I haven’t seen any studies. But if I’m processing what you’re saying, it wouldn’t surprise me, because it’s not something that’s happening organically. Right? You’re forcing it.”
The recording released by Axios begins with Vega, an auxiliary Prince William County sheriff’s deputy and former Alexandria police officer, drawing on her own anecdotal experience as a law enforcement officer with rape and pregnancy.
“The left will say, ‘Well, what about in cases of rape or incest?’ ” Vega said, apparently referring to exceptions to abortion bans in those cases. “I’m a law enforcement officer. I became a police officer in 2011. I worked one case where, as result of a rape, the young woman became pregnant.”
Then the unidentified person asked Vega if she had heard it’s harder for rape victims to get pregnant. As Vega explained why she thought that could be true, the woman added in agreement: “Exactly. Like, the body shuts down in some way.”
“Yeah, yeah. And the individual, the male is doing it as quickly — it’s not like, you know — so I can see why maybe there’s truth to that,” Vega responded.
Rape can and does lead to pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that nearly 3 million American women have experienced rape-related pregnancy, citing a 2018 paper that conducted the first review and survey of rape-related pregnancy in two decades. Abortions stemming from rape are uncommon, according to recent studies, with the Guttmacher Institute estimating that just 1 percent of abortions follow a rape and a 2015 Chicago survey of more than 19,000 women at two health-care clinics offering abortion finding just 1.9 percent got an abortion because of rape.
The CDC also notes that only between 5.2 percent and 26 percent of rape victims report their rape, depending on the identity of the perpetrator.
The Washington Post requested an interview with Vega, including to ask questions about her positions on abortion policy in post-Roe America. She did not agree to an interview, instead sending a statement through a campaign spokesman that did not touch on her positions on abortion or her comments.
“Liberals are desperate to distract from their failed agenda of record high gas and grocery prices, and skyrocketing crime,” she wrote. “For all the left-wing bloggers and media, as a mother of two children, yes I’m fully aware of how women get pregnant.”
She then accused Spanberger of lying, although Vega did not say what about, and called her position on abortion “extreme.” A campaign spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about what Vega was referring to or to answer specific questions about Vega’s positions on a national abortion ban or about exceptions in cases of rape, incest and when a mother’s life is at risk, among other questions.
In a statement to The Post, Spanberger said Vega’s comments in the audio published by Axios were “devoid of truth, shamefully disrespectful toward victims of rape, and clearly indicate that she is not qualified to be making serious policy decisions on behalf of our fellow Virginians.”
“I will continue to work tirelessly to ensure a woman’s right to choose and the fundamental right to privacy,” Spanberger said.
State Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D), the president pro tempore of the Senate, in a tweet called Vega “a complete disgrace to everyone else wearing that uniform.” Susan Swecker, the chairwoman of the Virginia Democratic Party, called Vega’s comments “deeply hateful, offensive and an insult to all rape victims.”
“Vega’s indefensible comments have no place in Congress,” Swecker said in a statement. “The contrast could not be more clear between Yesli Vega and Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, who is a staunch defender of a woman’s right to choose and the fundamental right to privacy.”
Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, anticipated Democrats would make these comments a central rallying cry against Vega for the remainder of the campaign, especially given how last week’s overturn of Roe is “going to turbocharge Democratic voters.” He called her comments “very damaging” to her prospects in the swing district, which is anchored in Prince William County and the Fredericksburg area and is a district that both President Biden and Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) won.
Farnsworth and others noted the 2012 Senate campaign of Missouri’s Todd Akin tanked after Akin claimed inaccurately that it was “really rare” for pregnancy to occur after rape and that “the female body” would be able to “shut down” a “legitimate rape.”
“If the Democrats drop this issue between now and November, they’d be guilty of malpractice,” Farnsworth said. “Even in a red state like Missouri, a place far more conservative than the 7th District of Virginia, a comparable comment was poisonous to the Akin campaign.”
Vega’s position on Roe has been unambiguous. She cheered the leaked draft Supreme Court ruling in May and celebrated Friday when the ruling overturning the constitutional right to abortion officially came down, saying she was glad the power to decide abortion policy “was returning to the state where we have a pro-life Governor at the helm.”
But she has not been as clear about specific abortion policies she would support. According to Axios, she expressed support for a 15-week ban like the one Youngkin is pushing for but did not answer directly when asked if she would support a nationwide ban.
At an event in May observed by a Post reporter, Vega and several other candidates were asked what they would do about abortion in Congress.
Vega started by saying she agreed with everything two candidates before her had said. One, David Ross, a Spotsylvania County board supervisor, said he would support a bill declaring life begins at conception. Crystal Vanuch, the chair of the Stafford County board of supervisors, said she believed abortion policy should be left up to states.
Vega then said that “when you talk to people on the other side of the aisle about abortion, you have to know what you’re talking about,” before expressing apparent support for the Texas abortion law that banned abortion after six weeks; the state is now slated to ban all abortion.
“When we talk about the Texas bill, what does that bill say and mean, that if a heartbeat is detected, you can’t what? You can’t kill that baby. You can’t,” Vega said. “And most people don’t know this. All they know is general talking points — I don’t want old White men controlling my body. My body my choice. Where was that same rhetoric when they were trying to mandate vaccines on we the people?”
Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America
What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.
State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.
How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.