The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Youngkin’s biggest issue is abortion, not masks

Two dozen parents gathered outside Woodgrove High School in Purcellville for an anti-mask protest on Jan. 24. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Political newbie Glenn Youngkin (R) has officially been on the job as Virginia governor for a little more than a week. And in that short time, he has set Capitol Square on its collective ear, pushing issues that have percolated on the right for months, if not decades.

But as so often happens in Richmond, attention often settles on the issue that generates the most heat rather than the issue with the most substance. This time, it’s the hue, cry and lawsuits over Youngkin’s executive order ending the statewide mask mandate in K-12 schools, replacing it with a parental opt-out.

Candidate Youngkin promised to get rid of the mandates, both on masks and coronavirus vaccines. The resisters on the right who mounted loud and sometimes unruly protests against masks, vaccine mandates, critical race theory and a host of other items flocked to him.

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Governor Youngkin promptly paid them off with his anti-mask executive order. It was good Republican politics, such as they are today — which, by the way, makes the likable Youngkin a solid “get” for all Fox News producers.

That’s where the attention has gone — and will likely remain until the Virginia Supreme Court gets around to taking up the case.

But masks in schools are not the biggest issue to hit Richmond in these early days of the General Assembly session. Nor is it the runner-up issue: Youngkin’s order banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. Though that’s an important issue, smacking of censorship more than any concern for what kids learn, it’s not the big one.

The big issue dropped late last week, when Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) introduced a bill that would ban abortion “after 20 weeks gestation” unless “the mother has a condition that so complicates her medical condition as to necessitate the abortion to avert her death or to avert serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.”

This is an instance of a major party making a firm choice on that oldest of political truisms: They can either have the issue or they can have the solution.

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After decades of dancing around a ban — of any length — Republicans have chosen their solution. The Freitas bill fits neatly with what then-candidate Youngkin said he favored in a September debate with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe.

It also fits quite nicely with another Youngkin executive order retooling the state’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion to also be “an ambassador for unborn children.”

Add to this new Attorney General Jason Miyares’s decision to change Virginia’s stance on the Mississippi abortion law currently before the U.S. Supreme Court from opposition to declaring Roe. v Wade was “wrongly decided,” and what we have is a profound shift in the commonwealth’s stance on abortion.

And lest anyone think the Freitas bill is going nowhere: The wild card in that story is state Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond). In the 2020 General Assembly session, Morrissey broke ranks to vote against a bill relaxing some abortion restrictions. Then-Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) broke the resulting tie.

Should the proposed 20-week ban reach the Senate floor — a big if — the spotlight will fall on Morrissey, who could be the man who makes the ban reality.

It would be a big step for Morrissey. It would be a profound step for Virginia.

And it would be a big payoff for Youngkin and the network of evangelical voters and party activists who not only helped him with the gubernatorial nomination in 2021 but also put him in the Executive Mansion a few days ago.

This — not masks — is the big issue. Watch it closely.