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North Carolina abortion bill passage heightens stakes in Virginia

People holding a sing that reads "Virginia March for Life" walk down a street
Scott Elmquist
VPM News File
Gov. Glenn Youngkin joins anti-abortion advocates for the March for Life down Broad Street in downtown Richmond on Feb. 1, 2023.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he’ll continue to push for a 15-week ban if Republicans take the General Assembly in November.

Updated: May 17, 2023 at 3:51 PM EDT
Update: North Carolina's Legislature overrode Gov. Roy Cooper's ban on Tuesday, May 16.

A North Carolina bill that would ban most abortions past 12 weeks of pregnancy could have major consequences for Virginia providers, patients and legislative races if it becomes law, according to groups involved in the debate.

North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has vowed to veto the bill, which would also place major restrictions on abortion providers. Republicans hold enough seats in the state’s Legislature to overrule a veto, but Cooper urged several members of the Republican super-majority to buck their party.

If legislators chose to override Cooper’s veto, Virginia would become one of the last remaining states in the South with broad access to abortion. The procedure is now banned across most of the region, including in neighboring West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. GOP lawmakers in South Carolina, which currently allows abortion through 22 weeks, are considering another 6-week ban after an earlier restriction was thrown out by the state's supreme court. North Carolina currently restricts termination beyond 20 weeks.

Restrictions to the south would push people seeking abortion care into Virginia, extending wait times for local and out-of-state patients, according to Jamie Lockhart, executive director at Planned Parenthood of Virginia.

“It'll disrupt access to abortion for people seeking care in Virginia,” Lockhart said.

Virginia currently allows abortions through the first two trimesters of pregnancy and in limited cases during the third — if a pregnant person’s life or health is in danger. A January poll from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center found more than 70% of Virginians surveyed support keeping current laws unchanged or making them less restrictive.

The issue is already feeding into state legislative races. Republicans are aiming to flip the state Senate, which has so far blocked GOP abortion bills, and keep their hold on the House of Delegates. Their success would give Gov. Glenn Youngkin more latitude to pass his agenda.

Asked Monday if a GOP sweep would change his calculus on abortion, Youngkin said Monday he’ll continue his so-far-unsuccessful push to ban the procedure in most cases beyond 15-weeks. He said his proposal would include exceptions for rape, incest or if a woman’s life is in danger.

“There seems to be substantial support across Democrats across Republicans, men and women, for a bill that would protect life in 15 weeks,” Youngkin told reporters at an unrelated bill-signing event.

The governor’s push, while criticized by U.S. Rep. Bob Good (R–Lynchburg) as insufficiently stringent, takes into account political realities, according to Olivia Gans Turner, president of the anti-abortion group Virginia Society for Human Life.

Turner said while she appreciated some GOP lawmakers’ effort to ban the procedure outright, “This is not a point in history in Virginia where such legislation would have any legs.” Turner argued that less restrictive bills, such as listing pregnancy centers on the state health website, enjoyed broader public support. “I think that's where we would focus at this stage of the game — laws that most Virginians think are rational.”

Lockhart, of Planned Parenthood, said a 15-week ban would still lead to “substandard health care, higher maternal and infant mortality rates and people being forced to carry pregnancies against their will.”

The organization’s political arm has given millions to Democrats in past campaign cycles and is already active in a primary where the issue has taken stage: state Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond)’s race against former Del. Lashrecse Aird.

Morrissey, a practicing Catholic who’s said he is personally opposed to abortion, has previously hinted he might support abortion restrictions. He told WRIC-TV in January he was keeping an “open mind” on the matter.

He is listed as a co-patron of a 2022 bill from state Sen. Amanda Chase (R–Chesterfield) that would have penalized abortions beyond 20 weeks as a Class 6 felony, with exceptions if a woman’s life is in danger. This year, he sat out a vote for a proposal that would have enshrined the right to an abortion in the state constitution.

After Planned Parenthood of Virginia drew attention to those votes with flyers claiming Morrissey “wants to ban abortion in Virginia,” Morrissey’s campaign responded with mailers and a digital ad of its own accusing Aird of lying.

The mailers include comments he made to media organizations, like the Richmond Times-Dispatch, calling abortions “a private decision between a woman and her physician” and saying that Morrissey “has never voted to restrict abortion access.”

Read more: Henrico woman shares story of 23-week abortion amid restriction debate

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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