Amid a recent charged debate over late-term abortions, a clear majority of Virginians say terminating a pregnancy in the third trimester should be legal if the woman’s health is at risk, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll.
The findings highlight the complicated nature of Virginians’ views on an issue that has been thrust into the center of the national conversation, fueled by a recent bill in Virginia that sought to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions.
The failed bill, and a controversial radio interview with Gov. Ralph Northam (D), spurred outrage from conservatives and ignited two weeks of political chaos in Virginia’s executive branch.
Virginia law already permits abortion after the second trimester when three physicians certify that the mother’s life or health would be “substantially and irremediably” harmed by continuing the pregnancy. The bill proposed by Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) would have required only one doctor to sign off on the abortion and would have removed language requiring the danger to be substantial and irremediable.
Asked about the bill in a radio interview, Northam made a statement that was later characterized by conservatives to mean Northam was condoning infanticide. The governor’s office later clarified that he was referring to a discussion about prognosis and medical treatment, not ending the life of an infant. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, said the suggestion that he supported infanticide was “disgusting.”
But the remarks created an uproar among Republican lawmakers in Virginia and conservatives across the country. In his State of the Union address, President Trump said the Virginia governor would “execute” a baby after birth and asked Congress to ban late-term abortions.
Within days of Northam’s radio interview about abortion, news outlets published a racist photo from Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook, setting off a series of unfolding scandals in Virginia politics. Since then, Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) both admitted wearing blackface when they were younger and Lt. Gov Justin Fairfax (D) denied two allegations of sexual assault.
Abortion rights advocates say the national focus on late-term abortions has impeded their efforts to loosen restrictions on the procedure.
“It was an orchestrated attack,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. Conservatives, she said, “took a bill and they twisted it to a message they wanted to talk about,” even though late-term abortions are extremely rare, Keene said.
In Virginia, there have been two late-term abortions since 2000, according to the state health department.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 percent of abortions take place at 13 weeks of gestation or earlier, and only 1.3 percent are performed after 21 weeks of gestation.
It’s unclear how many of these late-term abortions take place because of medical reasons. But Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia, said she feels abortion rights activists overemphasize cases in which a mother’s life is in danger. “I think it’s an intentional distraction to try to justify a gruesome procedure,” Cobb said.
According to the Post-Schar School poll conducted last week, just about 1 in 5 Virginians say abortion laws in the commonwealth should be “less strict,” while 34 percent say they should be “more strict” and 37 percent say they should “remain as they are.”
Nearly 6 in 10 Virginians say the issue of abortion is either very important to them or one of the single most important issues. This group holds significantly more conservative views on the issue, with 50 percent who support stricter abortion laws, compared with 11 percent of Virginians who say abortion is somewhat important to them or less.
Among that same group who say abortion is a very important issue to them, a slim 52 percent majority say third trimester abortions should be legal if the woman’s health is at risk while 42 percent say they should not be legal. Among Virginians who say abortion is less important, 72 percent say such abortions should be legal.
Groups most likely to say abortion is at least a very important issue include white evangelical Christians (79 percent) Republicans (78 percent) and women (64 percent). By comparison, 44 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of men say the issue is similarly important to them.
Charlotte Lumumba, a 53-year-old registered nurse who lives in Woodbridge, said she does not support abortion, but has always felt that it should be allowed in situations that are life-threatening for the mother.
“I’ve always valued life and I will continue to value life,” she said. “Life is the life of the child, but it’s also the life of the mother. If you lose both the mother and child, it’s no use.”
Ben Doyle, a 41-year-old Republican in the Shenandoah Valley, said he considers abortion “murder,” and does not think it should be legal to terminate a pregnancy if a woman’s health is at risk. But if a late-term pregnancy is truly life threatening, “that’s a tough call,” Doyle said, particularly when a mother already has other children to care for.
“I don’t believe in it, but I also understand there’s times where that’s required, particularly if she’s already got kids,” Doyle said. “At what point do you bargain one life for another?”
A wide majority of Republicans — 66 percent — say they would like to see abortion laws in Virginia become more strict, while pluralities of independents and Democrats say they should remain as they are (44 percent and 42 percent, respectively).
Despite a push by Virginia Democrats in the state to reduce limits on third-trimester abortions, 1 in 3 Democrats say the state’s laws should be made less strict.
Some Democrats in Virginia, like Dolly Oliva, a 60-year-old tax practitioner from Hillsville, stand with their party on the issue. “I think it should always be a decision between a woman and her doctor, and I think it needs to be available,” at any point in the pregnancy, particularly when the woman’s health is at risk, Oliva said.
Others, like George Rudebusch, a graduate student studying law and public policy at the University of Virginia, say it’s more complicated.
As a strong proponent of individual choice and self-determination, Rudebusch feels that abortion laws should generally be less restrictive. But his views on third-trimester abortions shifted after he learned that his fiance’s sister was born at 25 weeks of gestation, just a week past what is often considered the point of fetal viability.
Hearing her story, he began believing that abortions in the third trimester should only be permitted in cases of medical emergencies or rape.
“You really kind of see a big clash of principles there,” Rudebusch said.
The poll was conducted by the Post and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government by telephone last week among a random sample of 706 Virginia adults, including 62 percent reached on cellphones and 38 percent on landlines. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.