RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin said this week he believes life begins at conception and vowed to sign “any bill … to protect life” that reaches his desk, expressing more ambitious antiabortion goals than he set out last year on the campaign trail or expects to pull off in the next legislative session.
In remarks to conservative activists Tuesday night, Youngkin (R) indicated that if the political landscape shifts in Richmond, he would like to rein in abortion rights beyond what he is seeking now — a ban on most abortions after 15 or 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“Any bill that comes to my desk I will sign happily and gleefully in order to protect life,” he said in an online forum organized by the Family Foundation of Virginia to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that had legalized abortion nationwide.
Moments after Friday’s ruling, Youngkin said he would pursue a ban on the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. He also said he would be willing to settle for a 20-week cutoff to get a bill out of a divided Capitol.
But in Tuesday’s forum, he characterized his proposed 15-week ban as the fallback and indicated that he would push for stricter limits if Republicans hold onto the House of Delegates and flip the state Senate in elections next year.
“My goal is that we, in fact, get a bill to sign. It won’t be the bill that we all want,” he said, going on to note that he believes “life begins at inception” — a slip of the tongue, according to a Youngkin spokesman, who said the governor meant to say “conception.”
Asked how the governor would define “the bill that we all want” and whether that would be a total ban on abortion, Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter did not answer directly.
“The Governor is entrusting the four members tasked with writing a consensus-building bill to present to the General Assembly in January,” she said in a written statement, referring to four antiabortion Republicans Youngkin has asked to draft a 15-week bill. “While we won’t elaborate on hypotheticals, the Governor is confident that the group will produce legislation with bipartisan support.”
Democrats seized on Youngkin’s comments, with state party spokesman Gianni Snidle calling him “an extremist and a danger to our Commonwealth.”
“It’s more crucial than ever before that we elect Democrats to ensure that reproductive rights are protected in the Commonwealth and that our radical governor will never get the chance to sign any of these vile bills,” he said in a written statement.
Virginia will be a battleground state for abortion in post-Roe America, given that Youngkin and the Republican-led House of Delegates are inclined to push for restrictions that Democrats who narrowly control the state Senate may not have the votes to stop.
Under current law, Virginia allows abortion in the first and second trimesters, about 26 weeks, and in the third only if the mother’s life or health is at serious risk, as certified by three doctors.
Youngkin vowed to “protect the life of every Virginia child born and unborn” as he clinched the GOP gubernatorial nomination last year. But in the general election, he played up issues with more appeal to swing voters and avoided specifics on any abortion-related policy goals.
As a political newcomer with no voting record and an unwillingness to answer interest-group surveys, Youngkin kept his stance on abortion intentionally vague. A surreptitious recording last summer captured him saying that he would go “on offense” against abortion if he won the governor’s race, but that he had to keep his antiabortion views quiet for fear of alienating independents.
Youngkin did not routinely share his belief that life begins at conception, although it was reported at least once during the campaign, in a September National Review article that quoted a letter he’d sent to antiabortion leaders and activists.
“As the next Governor of Virginia, I will proudly stand up for the unborn and their mothers,” Youngkin’s letter said. “I believe life begins at conception. My views are formed not only by my faith, but by science as well.”
Youngkin got most specific when pressed in a September debate with Democrat Terry McAuliffe. While sidestepping a question on whether he would support a six-week ban if it included rape, incest and life-of-the-mother exceptions, Youngkin said he would back a “pain threshold bill.”
He also said that he would oppose any taxpayer funding of abortions in the letter that appeared in the National Review. Virginia funds abortions for low-income patients only in cases of rape, incest, when the mother’s life is at risk or if the fetus has “incapacitating” physical or mental deficiencies.
Youngkin unsuccessfully sought to remove the last of those exceptions through an amendment to the state budget bill this month, but Senate Democrats defeated him. All 19 Senate Republicans oppose abortion as does one of its 21 Democrats. While Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) has opposed some restrictions, he has said he would support a fetal-pain bill.
If Morrissey joins with Republicans to ban abortion at that point, it would result in a 20-to-20 tie that Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears (R) could break in favor of her party.
Youngkin walked a tightrope as he ran for governor in this swing state and he has revived some of his balancing act now, as he’s begun hinting at a potential 2024 presidential run. That’s left him facing critics from the right and left at times.
U.S. Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who opposes abortion without exception, panned the governor’s 15-week plan on Twitter last week as too modest.
But Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, expressed support during the forum for the governor’s approach given the current political realities in the General Assembly.
“Pro-lifers obviously believe there’s life before 15 weeks. We know that most of the abortions happen before 15 weeks,” she said as she introduced Youngkin. “But we also understand that we’ve had some real challenges in the Senate. … It will be an amazing thing if we could get this 15-week bill to your desk.”
Youngkin also said he would “quadruple down” on efforts to support those who choose to give birth, providing them with “infrastructure, prayer, counseling, hope and opportunity for mothers who choose life.”
A conservative Christian who founded a church in his Great Falls basement and opens Cabinet meetings with a prayer, Youngkin twice referred to the Supreme Court ruling as “an amen moment.”
“How fabulous is it — it is such an amen moment,” he said, before repeating it as he signed off about five minutes later. “This is an amen moment, a moment when we thank the Lord for his amazing work.”