Now Everybody Has a Club on Abortion. Wonderful.

Watching the abortion issue being shoved into the coming Virginia elections by ideologues on both sides, it is fair to ask the question:  Can the center hold?  Are the many people who are fairly comfortable with the state of the law these last few decades going to be sorry with an outcome in either direction?

The point has been well-made that the debate over the less-restrictive third-trimester abortion rules, proposed in a failed bill during the 2019 General Assembly session, involved very few cases.  As reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch long ago, under the current law third-trimester abortions are not happening here.  The bill in question might have changed that, but not much. 

But after months of Republicans using the issue as a club on Democrats, now Republicans in other states have moved to the opposite terminus of the spectrum, passing bills that effectively prohibit abortion at six to eight weeks of pregnancy.  Democrats now have a club.

Unlike that Virginia bill, these new approaches would change quite a bit. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, in 2015 about 23 percent of the more than 18,000 abortions in Virginia  were on women eight weeks or more pregnant. Set the cutoff at six weeks, the reported point when a fetal heartbeat might be detected, and almost half of the Virginia abortions in that year would have faced restriction under such a law.

With those and related near-abortion bans passing in several other places, and after all the political rhetoric about the third-trimester bill, it is fair game for the Democrats to force Virginia GOP candidates to take a position on them.

I looked for the data partly to confirm a recollection that this is another policy area where a racially disparate impact appears – with about 45 percent of Virginia abortions performed on African American women and their progeny. Will that cause the same concern as it does with arrest statistics?

Jeff Schapiro has his own take on this in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.  He sees danger only for Republicans, of course, but I think both parties are about to alienate the center.  His opinion will get the state-wide airing in the VPAP clips tomorrow, not mine.  So please keep reading.

The word extremist sets some teeth on edge, but we are seeing an argument set at the extreme ends of the debate – easy abortions with no state restriction right up to the point of birth, or no abortion at any point without absolute and indisputable medical necessity.  Neither is the current state of the law anywhere in the United States, and despite some excitement in anti-abortion circles, there is reason to believe recent Supreme Court nominees were telling the truth about their respect for precedent.

Few issues made me less comfortable back in the days when I was working on campaigns, but many on both sides want to forget something important:  Thirty to forty years ago, this issue easily crossed party lines.  There were Democrats who opposed abortion, or at least were open to reasonable regulations.  The sponsors of Virginia’s first parental consent law, which I covered extensively as a reporter, were Democrats (Ted Morrison, Dick Cranwell.)  The pro-life leader of the Senate was Democrat Joseph Gartlan, with help from fellow Democrat Chuck Colgan.

And as Republican caucus director I looked at the GOP legislators of the day and saw the group in three camps, which I called pro-life, pro-choice and pro-confusion.  It was my job to help legislators in all three camps hone their rhetoric, and fairly often a bit of obfuscation was the goal.

Now it’s more a party line issue, at least in Virginia.  I’m not sure that a pro-life Democrat or a Republican willing to defend existing law could ever survive a primary now, not without avoiding the issue.  There have been a couple of Democrats who disavowed this year’s third-trimester bill, and some Republicans opposed the 2012 bill on pre-abortion ultrasound testing.

Abortion is used in campaigns mainly as a magnet to turn out single-issue voters on both sides.  It is not much of wedge issue in these days when the party positions are solidified, and internal debate largely is over.

The 2019 bill, and Governor Ralph Northam’s willingness to jump in with both feet, gave Republicans one hell of a magnet.   I’m sure that Democrats are breathing a deep sigh of relief that Republicans in Missouri, Alabama and a few other states have jolted their magnet to life with a full charge.  The rest of us are now going to be bombarded with campaign messaging on both sides.

The state of the law in most states, 46 years after Roe vs. Wade, is one of those classic compromises leaving many (but not all) people unhappy.  It recognizes that a point comes when the unborn child is indisputably a child, a human being with rights.  And it has produced a system where very few abortions happen at a time when the child might survive outside the womb.   The vast majority occur in the first thirteen weeks, with most of the rest before twenty weeks.  Technology makes it very easy to detect pregnancy and any major problems with that pregnancy much earlier than before.

The Republicans in Virginia have imposed medical facility requirements making the procedure itself more expensive and perhaps limiting access, but abortions are still happening regularly.  Likewise, the mandatory ultrasound has hardly stopped abortion in Virginia.  The GOP has won how many statewide elections since passing that?

But we’re going to get the full treatment between now and November.  Come January, when the next General Assembly majority has to act on the unwise promises made when winning, my suggestion is – don’t.  Either of you.