“I know what it means to Virginian women when Glenn Youngkin says he wants to ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood.”

“Glenn Youngkin in July was caught secretly on tape saying that when he is governor and he has the House that he will defund Planned Parenthood and he will ban all abortions in the commonwealth of Virginia. … Let me be clear, Glenn Youngkin has said, ‘I will go on the offense, I will defund Planned Parenthood, I will ban abortions.’”

— McAuliffe, news conference, Sept. 7

“People now realize, ‘I got to vote,' because Virginia could go the way of Texas. You’ve seen the Florida legislature says they’re going to do it. Glenn wants to do it.”

— McAuliffe, interview with NBC4, Sept. 7

“He has said time and time again that as governor he will ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood.”

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who is seeking his old job, is milking remarks made by his Republican rival, Glenn Youngkin, to a liberal activist who posed as an antiabortion activist and then recorded the conversation.

The recording generated headlines because Youngkin, a former equity investor, has generally avoided taking detailed stands on hot-button cultural issues. (There is not even an abortion issues page on his campaign website.) During the conversation, Youngkin appeared to indicate sympathy for the antiabortion stance but noted he had to keep his powder dry during election season.

“When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense,” he confided. “But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

McAuliffe has turned this conversation into an affirmative — that Youngkin, as governor, would ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood. He’s even turned this one-time conversation into a repeated pledge. But is that what Youngkin said?

The Facts

Abortion has suddenly loomed as an issue in the Virginia race after the Supreme Court did not block a Texas law that prohibits abortions just six weeks after a woman has had her last menstrual period, even in cases of rape or incest. In effect, the measure would ban most abortions, because relatively few women discover they are pregnant at that point, especially if they have irregular periods.

In 2019, a Washington Post poll found that 60 percent of Virginians surveyed said abortion should be legal in the third trimester if a woman’s life was in danger — which is the current law in Virginia. The same poll found that 34 percent said abortion laws should be made stricter, 21 percent said they should be less strict and 37 percent said the laws should remain the same.

In 2020, after Democrats took control of the state House and Senate, they rolled back restrictions on abortion that Republicans had put in place between 2012 and 2013, such as mandating that a woman receive an ultrasound and wait 24 hours before any abortion. Earlier this year, Democrats passed a law to allow health insurance plans purchased through state-run exchanges to cover abortion procedures.

Youngkin, who has called himself “pro-life,” has criticized those changes.

“My religious foundation and the cornerstone of my life teaches me is to protect life before birth and after birth,” he told a Breitbart radio program in April. “I just want Virginians to know I will stand for life,” he added, saying “these are not squishy issues. These are absolute issues.”

But Youngkin has also said he supports exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk. “Glenn Youngkin supports funding for women’s health centers, believes that fewer abortions is a good thing, and supports exceptions for rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in danger,” a campaign spokesperson told the Hill in August.

More specifically, in an interview in August with the National Review, he was asked whether he would sign a bill prohibiting most abortions after 20 weeks into a pregnancy. The age of viability has been pegged as little as 22 weeks, but antiabortion advocates say that fetuses can feel pain as early as 20 weeks — a claim based in complex science but disputed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“I think that when a child could feel pain, we should go discuss when that is, and that would be a very good moment for us to actually make sure we are stopping tax­payer-funded abortions,” Youngkin replied. The magazine reported that a campaign aide later said he would sign such legislation. (Update: in a debate with McAuliffe on Sept. 16, Youngkin state he would sign such a bill.)

(Note: Most abortions take place early in the pregnancy; 88 percent occur in the first 12 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. About 1.3 percent of abortions — some 11,000 a year — take place after 21 weeks. Guttmacher says that 43 states prohibit some abortions after a certain point in pregnancy, such as fetal viability, in the third trimester or after a certain number of weeks.)

None of that amounts to a ban on abortion, though it would certainly be more restrictive than current Virginia law. Youngkin’s campaign this year also donated $3,500 to the Family Foundation of Virginia, a socially conservative lobbying group that supports abortion restrictions.

Youngkin has not directly answered questions on the Texas law, except to note that he supports exceptions not permitted by the law and that such a restrictive law would not have much political support in Virginia. “Virginia is not Texas. I don’t believe that a law like that actually flies in Virginia,” he said at a Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce event in Arlington on Sept 8. “I don’t think that flies in Virginia.” (Update: in the debate on Sept. 16, Youngkin said: “I would not sign the Texas bill today,” saying it was “unworkable and confusing.”)

As for Planned Parenthood, Youngkin hasn’t been especially clear. He’s opposed to having state-run exchanges pay for abortions, but his campaign says he supports funding for women’s health centers.

This brings us to the recording made by Lauren Windsor, who runs the Undercurrent, a politically oriented Web show funded by the liberal advocacy group American Family Voices. She posed as an antiabortion activist at a GOP gathering in Loudoun County.

The McAuliffe campaign ad cites as its source a Washington Post article on the recording, but the article does not say that Youngkin said he would ban abortions or defund Planned Parenthood; that’s the McAuliffe campaign interpretation quoted in the article.

Here are the key sections of the transcript, some of which can be viewed in the video above. To some extent, it’s open to interpretation, but Youngkin politely engages without fully embracing the demand for a fetal heartbeat bill or a ban on abortions. He also does not emphasize that he supports exceptions that would permit abortions. But he certainly indicates that to avoid losing votes, he’s not talking loudly about abortion policy.

Questioner: “I want to make sure that Virginia is doing everything it can until we get an abortion ban … to make sure that we’re defending the unborn.”

Youngkin: “I agree.”

Questioner: “And whether that’s, you know, getting a fetal heartbeat bill here like they did in Texas, or defunding Planned Parenthood.”

Youngkin: “Yeah, let’s just start, let’s just start, you’re on the right path. First thing we got to do is we … got to stop using taxpayer money for abortions and we got to stop allowing abortions all the way up until the last week before birth.”

Questioner: “Can we defund Planned Parenthood, do we take like, do we take it to the abortionists, though?”

Youngkin: “I’m going to be really honest with you. The short answer is, in this campaign, I can’t. 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. So you’ll never hear me support Planned Parenthood. What you’ll hear me talk about is actually taking back the radical abortion policies that Virginians don’t want. … So I’m not going to go squishy on you.”

Questioner: “I appreciate that.”

Youngkin: “So, I will not go squishy but I got to win in order to stand up for the unborn.”

The McAuliffe campaign defended the ad as accurate.

“Glenn Youngkin has proudly and repeatedly proclaimed his opposition to women’s reproductive rights on the campaign trail, and he was caught on video admitting to his closest supporters that he wants to go ‘on offense’ to ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood if elected,” McAuliffe spokesman Renzo Olivari said in a statement. “His extreme position — and that of his running mate who promised to bring a Texas-style abortion ban to Virginia — is dangerous to women’s health, out of step with the 80 percent of Virginians who support women’s access to health care, and would harm our economy. As governor, Terry will continue to be a ‘brick wall’ against far-right attacks on a woman’s right to choose and he will always keep Virginia open and welcoming to all.”

The Pinocchio Test

Youngkin has made clear that he is antiabortion and would support rolling back abortion expansions made by Democrats in recent years. He has made clear he is against taxpayer money for abortions and he’s not a supporter of Planned Parenthood. He’s even indicated support for a bill that would restrict abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But it’s a leap to say that he affirmatively said he would ban abortions, including by supporting a version of Texas’s six-week law, or would defund Planned Parenthood.

If McAuliffe wants to rally strong supporters of abortion rights to his side, he has plenty of material to work with. Youngkin could be fairly called out for remaining relatively opaque about specific abortion policies he supports. Indeed, this would be an easier fact check if Youngkin’s position were clearer.

But McAuliffe is twisting Youngkin’s secretly recorded comments into something Youngkin did not say — and it’s especially a stretch to claim he has repeatedly said he would ban abortion in Virginia.

Two Pinocchios

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter