Republican-Led States Are Rushing to Ban Abortion. Could Virginia Be Next?
Nikia Miller knew her relationship was a dead end.
Even at 19, Miller was certain her boyfriend was not the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. So, when she got a positive pregnancy test towards the end of their relationship, she knew what she had to do.
“I was put into a position where I had to make a hard choice, and was it a comfortable choice? No. Was it something that I wrestled with my own moral values and the things that I looked at as who I wanted to be? Absolutely,” Miller, now 41, told The Dogwood. “But at the end of the day, I knew that it was the right choice for me at that point in my life.”
Miller, a lifelong Hampton resident, made an appointment at her local Planned Parenthood and got an abortion. The process was easy and Miller felt supported and respected.
“It was before the stupid ultrasound bill went into effect, so I was not shamed in regards to my position. It was a same-day event,” Miller said, referring to a Republican-passed 2012 law that required women to get an abdominal ultrasound before having an abortion. The law also required most women in Virginia to wait 24 hours after their ultrasound to get an abortion.
Had these restrictions—which were repealed by Democrats in 2020—been in place, Miller’s experience would have been much more difficult. And it was already a hard choice. “The weight of a decision like that is not lost on me,” she said.
While she has moments where she wonders what might have happened if she hadn’t gotten an abortion, Miller has zero regrets about her decision.
“My teen years were very difficult, just all over the place. My mother was a cancer patient, so I would literally bounce between my mother’s house and my grandparents and back to my mother’s house,” Miller said. “It was crazy.”
To bring a child into that environment and raise them with someone she had no interest in co-parenting with was not an option. Just as importantly, Miller was not ready to be a mom.
“I wasn’t going to come into a situation where I resented a baby because I missed out on what I wanted to accomplish,” she said. “I was able to actually live my twenties. I was able to do so much. I was able to travel, I was able to do the things that having an infant would have not given me the allowances to do. I was able to have the freedom that I needed at that point and when it came time for me to be a mother, I was.”
Miller is now married and has three children, ages 15, 8, and 5. She is confident that she would not be the mother she is today if she hadn’t gotten an abortion.
“When I got pregnant with my oldest, there was no question that we were going to see this through,” Miller said. “She came to this world happy and healthy with two parents who were overjoyed for her to be here.”
Miller’s story is common. Nearly one in four women have an abortion before the age of 45 and do so for a variety of reasons. The constitutional right to an abortion has been protected for nearly 50 years, since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.
But that right has come under attack from an increasingly radical Republican party and a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court. Most recently, Texas Republicans effectively passed a ban on abortions after six weeks, before many women even know they’re pregnant.
“In my own situation, I didn’t find out ‘til I was like nine weeks along,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of women who don’t find out that they’re even expecting until they’re past six weeks along, so what happens then? What about fetuses who have significant abnormalities? … Or where it will either be the life of the mother or it’ll be the life of an unborn? What do you say then?”
Despite these concerns and the precedent established in Roe and later affirmed in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v Casey, the Supreme Court allowed the Texas law to go into effect.
Since the Court’s blessing of Texas’ effort, Republican leaders in more than half-a-dozen states across the country have begun planning similar proposals. Virginia is no stranger to the GOP’s decades-long war on women, but since taking control of the state legislature in 2019, Virginia’s Democratic leadership has protected and expanded access to abortion in the commonwealth.
Those gains could be at risk, though. Even as overwhelming majorities of Virginians support legal access to abortion, advocates fear that Virginia could go the way of Texas if anti-abortion Republican Glenn Youngkin becomes the commonwealth’s next governor.
“If we do have Glenn Youngkin as the governor of Virginia, then we’ll be just like Texas,” said LaTwyla Mathias, executive director of Progress Virginia. “We’ll see laws influx the General Assembly, just like SB8 in Texas where they’ll try to roll back all the progress that we’ve made over the past few years.”
What would abortion rights in Virginia look like under Youngkin? Youngkin has said he supports abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk and claimed in September that he would not sign a Texas-like bill. He did say, however, that he would support a “pain-threshold” bill—a position that appears to suggest he would ban abortion once the fetus is thought to be able to feel pain. Such “pain-capable” legislation exists in other states, and the cutoff is usually at 20 weeks. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, meanwhile, says a fetus does not have the physical capability to feel pain before 24 weeks.
But there’s reason to be skeptical of what Youngkin says in public. In a secretly-recorded video in July, the Republican admitted that he is effectively dodging the issue on the campaign trail, because he can’t afford to alienate independent voters. But when he’s in office with a majority, he said, “we can start going on offense.”
Youngkin’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Youngkin’s opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe has hammered the Republican on the issue in recent weeks. In a statement, McAuliffe campaign spokesperson Renzo Olivari once again blasted the Republican’s anti-abortion stances.
“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,” Olivari said. “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% of Virginians who support women’s access to health care, and would harm our economy.”
While it’s not entirely clear what Youngkin would actually do in office, you don’t have to look back very far to find what a radical Republican governor would mean for abortion rights in Virginia.
The Republican ‘Scheme’ To ‘Make Abortion Less Accessible and More Expensive’
In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell won Virginia’s gubernatorial election by focusing on jobs and the economy. Once in office, though, he wasted little time targeting abortion rights in the state.
In 2011, McDonnell and the Republican-controlled legislature banned private insurance plans sold on the Affordable Care Act (ACA)’s health care exchange from covering abortions, except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life.
Beginning that same year, McDonnell and his Republican allies enacted a set of so-called TRAP Laws, which targeted abortion providers with onerous restrictions. These laws forced all abortion clinics that performed five or more abortions per month to be classified as hospitals. Under the new regulations, clinics had to comply with hospital-style building codes, requiring minimum hallway widths and entrance awnings, a limit on how loud outdoor heating and ventilation systems can get, and ultra-specific parking requirements.
The regulations were roundly criticized by abortion providers and activists as having no medical justification. They argued it represented a clear attempt to limit women’s access abortion and to force clinics out of business.
“Their lives were not made easier by having to meet some of these really onerous requirements that other doctors’ offices were not required to do,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Virginia. “It was meant to be that way, so that it would make it almost impossible for them to offer the care that they had been offering for years.”
The restrictive regulations worked, reducing the number of abortion providers in the state. There were 21 abortion clinics in Virginia prior to the laws. By 2016, that number had decreased to 16.
In 2012, McDonnell expressed support for a bill that would have required a trans-vaginal ultrasound for any woman considering an abortion. The proposal drew intense national scrutiny and was even the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch. In the face of the outcry, McDonnell and his Republican colleagues instead approved the abdominal ultrasound mandate and 24-hour waiting period instead.
Under the law, all patients except those who lived 100 or more miles from a facility had to make two trips to the facility, a practice that reproductive rights advocates say was meant to discourage women from going through with the procedure.
“That was a scheme that would also make abortion less accessible and more expensive—not only for patients, but for the providers themselves, because they would have to do them at least 24 hours apart from the actual procedure,” Keene said.
The schemes worked, according to Keene and other abortion advocates.
Ayé Johnson is a birth and abortion doula in Richmond, where they also serve as the community & volunteer engagement accomplice at the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project (RRFP), an abortion fund.
“A lot of those TRAP laws were really impacting our callers,” Johnson said. “The 24-hour wait was crazy because over 80% Virginians live in counties or cities that don’t have abortion providers and it was really limiting to who could provide abortions.”
That meant that pregnant people might have to take two days off of work or pay for two nights at a hotel or two days of childcare, instead of one.
The restrictions were so severe they prompted a substantial backlash that helped sweep McAuliffe into office for his first term as governor.
“People really got engaged. They couldn’t believe the kind of government overreach that was happening,” Keene said. “And then in 2013, it was a major issue during the election cycle that year when McAuliffe and Northam and Herring were swept into office as the first pro-choice majority statewide ticket to ever be elected in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Backlash Powers A Blue Wave, And Democrats Reverse Republicans’ Anti-Abortion Laws
Since the 2013 election, Keene said that Democrats in the state have been far more vocal about their support for abortion rights and engage on the issue, rather than trying to sidestep it.
During McAuliffe’s tenure, the Virginia Board of Health repealed the hospital-like architectural requirements for abortion clinics in 2016. But because Republicans controlled both houses of the state legislature during McAuliffe’s term, he could do little to expand access to abortion. All he could do was protect it like a “brick wall,” and he did: the Democrat vetoed all bills that restricted abortion rights and access, including multiple bills that would have defunded Planned Parenthood in Virginia.
After Democrats won control of the legislature in 2019, however, they and Gov. Ralph Northam went on offense on behalf of the women who elected them into power.
“We had done years of prepping legislators on the kinds of bills that we really needed to pass to lift these restrictions and to open up access to abortion care for people in Virginia,” Keene said. “The first bill that we put forth was an omnibus bill that included five provisions and it was called the Reproductive Health Protection Act.”
In 2020, Democrats passed The Reproductive Health Protection Act, which repealed the TRAP laws, repealed the mandatory ultrasounds law and the 24-hour waiting period, and repealed requirements that women get state-mandated counseling on alternatives to abortion. The law also allows nurse practitioners to also perform abortions during the first trimester of pregnancy, whereas before, only doctors could perform abortions. The act also removed the requirement that health centers performing five or more abortions a month be classified as hospitals.
The expansion of abortion rights has had a real impact on women in Virginia.
“It really made it easier for women to go into an office, confirm that they have a pregnancy, and get the abortion that they’re seeking without having to jump through as many hoops as the government put on women,” Mathias said.
Johnson, who also had an abortion, understands the importance of being able to easily get an abortion and feel supported during the process. “I had a procedural abortion and my mom helped me pay for it. The person that I was dating also helped me pay for it,” they said. “I was really happy I had those support systems to help me to do that.”
This year, Democrats further expanded abortion access by repealing the prohibition on private insurance plans sold on the healthcare exchange from covering abortion.
“While it’s still in the implementation phase, it will open up a lot of doors when insurance providers on the exchange can offer at least one plan that will have abortion coverage in it,” Keene said.
But more work needs to be done, particularly on the access front. “There’s still not as many abortion providers as we would like to see in the state,” Mathias said.
The Future: Will Virginia Continue to Protect Women’s Reproductive Rights or Turn Into Texas?
While Virginia has trended blue over the past decade, the future of abortion rights remain very much at stake.
If McAuliffe wins the governor’s race, Democrat Hala Ayala defeats Republican Winsome Sears in the lieutenant governor’s race, and Democrats retain control of the House of Delegates, Virginia will once-again have a government that defends abortion rights.
McAuliffe has said he believes Virginia’s abortion laws are good as is, but wants to enshrine Roe in the state Constitution in case the Supreme Court strikes it down, in order to guarantee access to abortion in the commonwealth.
“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,” Olivari said in a statement.
Advocates like Mathias and Keene both support enshrining Roe in the state constitution, but they also plan to push McAuliffe to pass the Reproductive Health Equity Act (RHEA), which would require all health insurance plans in Virginia cover preventive reproductive health services—such as birth control, family planning, prenatal care, childbirth, abortion care, and postpartum care—without imposing co-pays, deductibles, or co-insurance.
This is already the case under the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans have spent a decade trying to repeal that law at the federal level and RHEA would enshrine protection for reproductive care into state law. Importantly, the law would also guarantee access to reproductive health care services regardless of income, immigration status, gender identity or type of insurance. This would provide protection for marginalized communities—inlcuding transgender people, non-binary people, and undocumented immigrants—who sometimes struggle to obtain coverage.
“We’re trying to make sure that we can be a beacon of access to anybody in the state of Virginia who is seeking that care,” Mathias said.
Keene also plans to push for greater access to abortion in rural Virginia, where providers are few and far between. One way to do that would be to protect and expand the use of medication abortions, which as of this month, can now be more easily accessed after tele-health visits with Planned Parenthood.
“We want to see that kept legal. We want to see that kept accessible and that is extremely important for people who live in rural areas to be able to have that kind of option,” Keene said.
That’s the future abortion advocates want. But it depends on Democratic victory in November. Should Youngkin and Sears come out on top, and should Republicans also flip control of the House of Delegates, they would have an anti-abortion majority.
Even though Democrats hold a 21-19 majority in the state Senate—which is not on the ballot this year—there is one anti-abortion member of the Democratic caucus, State Sen. Joe Morrisey. If he sides with Republicans on abortion votes, that would create a 20-20 tie, in which case the staunchly anti-abortion Lt. Governor Winsome Sears would cast the tie-breaking vote to pass anti-abortion legislation.
Mathias and Keene are not taking that possibility for granted. If Republicans were to win and pass anti-abortion bills, Virginia could soon find itself facing Texas-like restrictions.
“We’ll be trying to travel to places like DC and Maryland where we can seek abortion care there and that’s not something that we’re trying to have in Virginia,” Mathias said. “Virginia has made a lot of headway, as first of the south with a lot of these progressive regulations and we don’t want to roll that back. We want to keep going on the path that we’re going.”
Keene believes this moment in time is an existential one for women’s reproductive rights. With abortion under attack by Republicans across the country and a hard-line conservative Supreme Court, protecting access to abortion in state laws is critical.
“This is one of those moments where people need to decide what is important and how much do they care about a person being able to make that very personal decision about if, when, with whom, and how to either start a family or expand their family,” Keene said. “It’s a very personal decision and it should not be left to politicians to make that decision for a person and their family.”
Over the past decade, Republican politicians in Virginia have tried to make that decision for families. That’s why Nikia Miller feels the need to share her story, all these years later. “Idiots like Bob McDonnell… he is one of the reasons why there has to be people like me,” she said. “Glenn Youngkin is one of the reasons why there has to be people like me.”
Miller speaks openly because her life shows just how important it is for women to have access to abortion and be able to choose whether or not they want to have a child.
“I know as myself, that where it was a hard choice, it was the right choice,” she said. “My life is better for it.”