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Abortion wasn’t always a partisan issue in Virginia

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A photo of Betty Kenley, who was chairperson of the group Virginians for Abortion Reform, taken in the 1980s. (Photo: Courtesy of Carol King)

The issue of abortion wasn’t always as politically polarized as it is today. That was the case across the country during the late 1960s, including in Virginia.

Following a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that seemingly indicates Roe V. Wade is set for repeal, groups have lined up largely along party lines to debate the issue. But in the '60s and late '70s, there was broad political support to legalize abortion in a handful of situations, when it was considered medically necessary. These instances became known as “therapeutic abortions.”

Daniel Williams, a history professor at the University of West Georgia who studies American religion and politics, said the abortion debate in Virginia before Roe v. Wade was much more of a debate between religious groups than political parties.

“The opposition came very heavily from Catholics,” Williams said. “Catholics were not the majority in Virginia, but Virginia did have a substantial number of Catholics compared to some states in the Deep South.”

Virginia’s law at the time — like in most states — only permitted abortions in emergency situations to save the life of a mother. But doctors were still being convicted and prosecuted for performing illegal abortions; Virginia’s law at the time dictated a minimum one-year jail sentence, with a maximum sentence of 10 years.

A psychiatrist called the existing state law “a total failure” during a Richmond Academy of Medicine meeting, according to a 1968 Times-Dispatch article.

“It doesn’t prevent criminal abortions; it doesn’t promote morality, and it ‘ignores the humanity of the woman carrying a child,’” J. McDermott Barnes said.

Changing views of abortion come in the 1960s

Virginia lawmakers introduced a bill in 1968 to change the state’s abortion law to completely leave the issue between physician and patient, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article from the era. But it failed to gain approval, and an alternative bill — in line with similar “therapeutic abortion” bills introduced in other states like North Carolina — was introduced and endorsed by medical groups.

But the bill didn’t pass that year either. The issue had been referred to the Virginia Advisory Legislative Council for further study, following an earlier legislative attempt at a therapeutic abortion bill in 1967.

In December 1969, the advisory council submitted a report with recommendations to the governor and lawmakers. VPM News reviewed a copy of the report that’s archived at the Library of Virginia.

The report cited a November 1969 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell in which he found the District of Columbia’s law on abortion – initially enacted in 1901 – to be unconstitutional, given that it only permitted abortions when necessary to save the mother’s life. The study also cited abortion law changes in 22 other states that had either been passed or were being considered.

“At the time, abortion was not primarily seen as a woman's rights issue; it was primarily seen as a medical issue and also as a social health issue,” Williams said. “The idea was that the restrictive abortion laws contributed to the number of women dying of dangerous illegal abortions, and that some middle-of-the-road path that would still maintain a substantial number of abortion restrictions — but also widen access to abortion in controlled situations — would be the responsible path forward.”

Still, some women’s groups were organizing and advocating to change Virginia’s law. A 1969 Times-Dispatch article identified Betty Kenley, of Richmond, as chairperson of the group Virginians for Abortion Reform. Kenley, a lifelong nurse who served as director of nursing for the Virginia Treatment Center for more than a decade, is now 91 and a Mechanicsville resident.

“It was a crazy time,” Kenley recently told VPM News. “We didn’t get very far.”

A 1969 March ad in the Times-Dispatch advertised a Virginians for Abortion Reform meeting: “Why do Archaic laws stay on our books? Come and Hear ‘The Abortion Myths.’”

The same year, the anti-abortion group Virginia Society for Human Life was established, and also ran ads in the Times-Dispatch. The organization is still around today, and Williams said it was formed earlier than similar groups in most states.

“The pro-life movement tended to be more organized in Virginia than it had been in the Deep South,” Williams said.

In 1970, Virginia joined a growing number of states to pass laws legalizing therapeutic abortion. According to a Times-Dispatch story, Virginia’s law legalized abortion for a handful of scenarios, including rape and incest, if the pregnancy “threatened substantial impairment” to the mother’s physical or mental health, or if there was a “substantial likelihood of the child being born with an incapacitating mental or physical defect.”

The law also required consent of the mother and a three-physician review board at the hospital where the procedure was to be performed.

According to the book “Abortion, Politics and the Courts: Roe v. Wade and Its Aftermath” by Eva Rubin, “experience with the therapeutic abortion reform laws in states that had passed them seemed to indicate that they would have very little positive impact. It was becoming clear that the reform bills … would allow legal abortions only in a very narrow range of cases, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any great number of women to qualify for legal abortions.”

Political fallout from Roe

When the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, Betty Kenley said “it was high time.”

Kenley’s daughter Carol King, who lives in Roanoke, told VPM News her mother has always been “very passionate about women’s rights.”

Following the landmark Supreme Court ruling, lawmakers ignored calls from the state attorney general to align Virginia law with the high court’s decision for two years. A bill authored by former Del. Ford C. Quillen (D-Gate City) to align Virginia law with Roe was initially struck down — even though Democrats controlled three-quarters of the seats in the Virginia General Assembly.

“If we pass [the bill] … it puts Virginia on record in support of the Supreme Court’s position on abortion, and that position is tantamount to legally permitting abortion on demand,” said Former Del. Alexander B. McMurtrie (D-Chesterfield) in a 1973 Richmond-Times Dispatch article.

Virginia's abortion law was eventually updated in 1975 to align with the new federal precedent.

Williams, the history professor, said that in general, Roe v. Wade was unpopular in the South, where no states had legalized elective abortions — unlike some states including New York, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii that had done so before Roe.

“There was the belief in those states that while some abortion should be allowed, that the Supreme Court had gone too far. And that those states felt they did not need to comply with a Supreme Court ruling and did so only when either a court or a state attorney general required them to comply,” Williams said.

Timeline produced by Samantha Willis, Angie Miles, and Angela Massino for VPM News Focal Point.

According to Rubin’s book, the abortion issue “had been a negligible issue in national politics” until the 1976 presidential primaries. The book also states that “religion turned out to have played a relatively minor role in the election,” citing polls taken at the time that showed 60% of Catholics approved of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision.

“Although the interjection of abortion into the 1976 campaign probably did not affect the outcome of the presidential race …, ” Rubin wrote, “the campaign that year … gave us a preview of the rising importance of single-issue groups on the political scene.”

In 1978, conservative political activist Paul Weyrich latched onto the issue of abortion to ganvanize evangelicals and grow the Republican Party. A year later, the Moral Majority was founded by Jerry Falwell — conservative activist, televangelist and founder of Lynchburg’s Liberty University.

The Moral Majority threw their weight behind Ronald Reagan, who opposed abortion.

“The well-heeled New Right attracted a whole spectrum of conservative, extremist, and single-issue forces to form a solid bloc behind the candidacy of Ronald Reagan,” according to Rubin’s book.   

Abortion and the John Roberts Court

If Roe v. Wade is overturned next month, abortions during the first and second trimesters of pregnancy will remain legal in Virginia. The commonwealth does not have a trigger law, laws some other states have that would make abortion illegal there immediately following the court’s ruling.

Williams said abortions in Virginia would likely rise if Roe v. Wade is overturned because women from nearby states with those trigger laws might travel to Virginia to get an abortion.

“One can easily imagine women from say, Alabama or Tennessee, driving to Roanoke or other places that have an abortion clinic and obtaining an abortion in Virginia,” Williams said. “And so my guess is that abortion therefore would become a more hotly debated topic in Virginia.”

But as VPM News recently reported, Republicans are only one vote away from controlling the state Senate and already hold the House of Delegates and the governor’s office. The Democrat's “brick wall” in the state Senate is fragile; Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond) has sided with Republicans in a handful of recent votes related to abortion and said earlier this year he supported restricting abortions past 20 weeks. However, when asked recently if he supported overturning Roe v. Wade by a producer on the “Fighting Joe Morrisey Show,” Morrisey failed to clarify his position, became agitated and engaged in a heated altercation with the producer after calling for a commercial break. 

Williams also pointed out that today, polls show that a plurality of Americans say that abortion should be "legal in certain circumstances," rather than legal or illegal in all circumstances.


Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.