Protesters gathered outside the state Capitol in Richmond on Friday, hours after the Supreme Court ruled it would overturn abortion protections established under Roe v. Wade. (Kate Masters/ Virginia Mercury)
Gov. Glenn Youngkin applauded Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision abolishing the constitutional right to an abortion and said Virginia Republicans will get to work on legislation “protecting the life of unborn children” by potentially banning most abortions after 15 weeks.
“The Supreme Court of the United States has rightfully returned power to the people and their elected representatives in the states,” Youngkin said in a statement released roughly an hour after the court handed down the seismic ruling that overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. “I’m proud to be a pro-life governor and plan to take every action I can to protect life. The truth is, Virginians want fewer abortions, not more abortions.”
The ruling, which gives states new power to restrict and regulate abortion, has no immediate impact in Virginia, where abortion remains legal largely because pro-choice Democrats have controlled the governor’s mansion for most of the last decade and currently hold a narrow majority in the state Senate. But it will undoubtedly make abortion rights a top issue in a politically divided state, where Republicans won the upper hand in last year’s elections and could potentially take full control of the statehouse in 2023.
Democrats and abortion-rights supporters reacted to the court ruling with horror, calling it a devastating blow to a fundamental right women have had for 50 years.
‘We don’t want to go back in time’
Hannah Sellars, a 29-year-old Richmond resident who attended a pro-abortion rights rally at the state Capitol a few hours after the news hit, said she had hoped the draft version of the opinion leaked in May was just a threat or a “fluke.” Seeing it become real, she said, left her “terrified.”
“I don’t want this to be the beginning of the end for women’s rights,” Sellars said. “Because we’ve come so far. We don’t want to go back in time.”
Some protesters began an impromptu march on Capitol Square after the rally, but Capitol Police told them they weren’t allowed to continue demonstrating on the statehouse grounds because the rally permit had expired. As activists began planning more protests Friday night, Youngkin called for civility and asked Virginians to “respect the rule of law.”
While the area surrounding the Capitol will remain open for now, the state’s Department of General Services announced it was taking “preparatory measures” to secure Capitol Square, including installing additional protective fencing.
“I am in regular contact with the Supreme Court justices and my administration is in coordination with our mayors and local and state police to ensure we are ready to take appropriate action if need be,” Youngkin stated. “Virginia will not stand for lawlessness or violence.”
Democrats and activists sought to rally supporters to protect and expand the slim Democratic majority in the state Senate and its ability to block imminent Republican efforts to roll back abortion access. Control of the House of Delegates, where Republicans have a 52-48 majority and have introduced several unsuccessful anti-abortion bills, will also be up for grabs in next year’s elections.
“I’m angry today,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who spoke at the same rally outside the Capitol. “I’m angry today because we are fighting the same fights that our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents fought. I’m fighting because for the first time in my lifetime, the Supreme Court has taken away one of my rights. I am angry because my seven-year-old daughter will have less rights when she comes of childbearing age than I do.”
“But if we’ve got to fight, we’re going to keep on fighting,” she added.
A ‘bipartisan consensus?’
The Family Foundation, one of Virginia’s top anti-abortion groups, said it was “thrilled” by the ruling.
“Today, we pause to celebrate the right to life of babies around the nation being protected, but tomorrow the work begins in Virginia to protect life throughout the commonwealth,” said Family Foundation president Victoria Cobb.
Youngkin, who has expressed support for so-called pain threshold legislation that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks, said he’s invited four Republican General Assembly members to help him “bring together legislators and advocates” to prepare a bill for consideration in the 2023 legislative session.
“We can build a bipartisan consensus on protecting the life of unborn children, especially when they begin to feel pain in the womb, and importantly supporting mothers and families who choose life.” Youngkin said.
The governor’s office said Youngkin supports abortion exceptions in cases involving rape or incest or where the mother’s life is at risk.
Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said House Republicans “stand ready” to reduce abortions in the state.
“I sincerely hope that Democrats will end their use of scare tactics and work with Republicans as the people of Virginia expect,” he said. “This decision places an enormous responsibility back into the hands of the General Assembly.”
The prospects for bipartisanship on such a deeply felt issue appeared dim. Some Democratic lawmakers noted Youngkin had only named Republicans to the group that will ostensibly work toward a compromise.
“Make no mistake—we will protect a person’s right to choose in Virginia,” the Senate Democratic Caucus said in a news release.
A key vote in Senate Democrats’ narrow majority is Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who voiced “great surprise” Friday at the Supreme Court’s decision to disregard its convention of respecting long-held precedents that are “part of the fabric of the court and society.” Morrissey, whose Catholic faith informs his anti-abortion position, also emphasized his past votes in favor of women’s rights.
“My position, which I think is shared by many, many people in my district, is that I am personally opposed to abortion,” Morrissey said. “However, as a legislator, I don’t think I have the right to tell other women what to do with their body”
Morrissey disavowed “extremists on the left and on the right”— including his pro-abortion rights primary opponent Lashresce Aird — and said he believes his position aligns with the average person in his district.
“I think a suitable marker or middle ground is this — if the fetus can feel pain,” Morrissey said. “Whether that’s 20 weeks, 22 weeks, 21 weeks, that might be the point where the state says ‘we’re going to prohibit abortion.’”
However, he didn’t fully commit to supporting potential legislation banning abortions based on a fetal pain threshold, saying he would give it “due consideration” and there “must be exceptions for rape or incest.”
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, an OBGYN who was one of the four Republicans Youngkin named to work on the issue, said overturning Roe was “the right thing to do constitutionally.”
“It’s time to take a deep breath and have an authentic conversation in Virginia,” Dunnavant said. “I am committed to having tough conversations, listening, building consensus and doing the right thing.”
‘Cruel, dangerous and devastating’
Under current state law, women have largely unrestricted access to abortion in the first and second trimesters. Abortion in the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week, are allowed only when three doctors decide continuing the pregnancy poses a severe threat to the mother.
Abortions have generally declined in Virginia over the last five years, dropping from 17,381 procedures in 2016 to 15,688 in 2020, according to data provided to the Mercury by the state’s Department of Health, which includes both terminated pregnancies and procedures to remove stillborn infants from the womb.
That number increased by roughly 3.5 percent in 2021, rising to 16,251 procedures, aligning with a recent reversal in national trends. But state data also shows that the vast majority of procedures in which gestational age is known occur within the first trimester, or 12 weeks into pregnancy. Since 2016, only 45 abortions are confirmed to have been performed in the third trimester, the latest stage of pregnancy (of 97,211 procedures performed since 2016, roughly 34 percent do not include information about the trimester in which they were performed, according to state data).
“Most abortions after 20 weeks, something has gone terribly wrong,” McClellan said after the rally. “Most of the time, you’ve had a very devastating fetal diagnosis, and in those cases, the baby won’t survive. So families are left with a devastating diagnosis, and now the governor would take away their ability to decide what’s best for them.”
Like other pro-choice advocates, she described Virginia as a “safe haven” in the South thanks to the General Assembly’s rollback of abortion restrictions under its former Democratic majority. Since the draft leak in May, providers and pro-choice advocates have warned that out-of-state patients are likely to drive up demand for the procedure.
Both Kentucky and Tennesse have so-called “trigger laws” to ban abortion within 30 days of Roe being overturned, and West Virginia — which outlaws the procedure after 20 weeks — still has a law criminalizing abortion on the books.
REPRO Rising Virginia, a statewide pro-choice advocacy group, is expecting thousands of out-of-state patients to seek care in Virginia following the decision, according to executive director Tarina Keene.
“Today’s Supreme Court decision is cruel, dangerous and devastating,” she said in a Friday statement. The Virginia chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also opposed the decision, describing it as a “dangerous intrusion” into the practice of medicine that could lead to doctors being criminalized for providing needed treatment.
“We remain opposed to government interference in the patient-physician relationship,” the organization said in a statement, adding that it was “unacceptable for doctors and health care professionals to be punished, fined, or sued and face imprisonment for delivering evidence-based care.”
Other attendees at Friday’s rally worried the decision could lead to the rollback of other rights under a Republican-controlled legislature — especially after Justice Clarence Thomas urged the Supreme Court to reconsider other rulings on access to contraception, same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage.
“They came for women today,” said 28-year-old Jared Rondeau, who drove from Petersburg to attend the rally. “But they said in the ruling they’re coming for gay people tomorrow. And if I don’t come out now, who’s going to stand up for me?”
Alexandra Walker, 17, and Sonia Krishna, 16, said even though they aren’t old enough to vote yet, they’ll do what they can to fight back.
“I think us coming out and making sure our legislators know this is not what Virginians want, this is not what Americans want… is so important,” Walker said. “It obviously didn’t deter the Supreme Court. But maybe it will help our lawmakers.”
This breaking news post has been updated to include additional reporting on the reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
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