With weeks left to go until Virginia’s state-wide elections, Democratic candidates for office are making abortion a central issue in their races, using Texas’s abortion ban as an example of the kind of legislation Republicans could pass if they regain power.
In the first debate for the state’s gubernatorial race, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe—who is running again for his old post—promised to be a “brick wall” against anti-abortion legislation, accusing his opponent, Republican Glenn Youngkin, of wanting to ban abortion. But then McAuliffe got snagged on a question about “third-trimester” abortions, saying he would support loosening a restriction requiring patients to get three doctors to sign off on the procedure before undergoing it. He said he supports “a woman’s right to make her own decision to a second trimester.”
According to the New York Times, McAuliffe and other Democrats running down the ballot are hoping that these promises appeal to suburban women in particular, an elusive, ill-defined group of voters pollsters say helped Biden win the presidency. But it will be a difficult task if pro-abortion candidates resign themselves to talking about the issue on anti-abortion candidates’ terms, as McAuliffe got stuck doing when he began discussing his support for abortion in terms of trimesters.
Conservatives (and debate moderators who don’t know better, perhaps) have become experts in backing Democrats into corners on abortion, posing questions with flawed assumptions embedded within them. Most inquiries about abortions later in pregnancy—what many anti-abortion activists have inaccurately called “late-term abortion”—rely on misleading information about the frequency of such procedures, what those procedures entail, and why people seek them. When Democratic politicians take a particular stance on these procedures, it reinforces the idea that there is something morally sui generis about abortions later in pregnancy and that they must be treated differently (which reinforces the idea that maybe there is something morally dubious about abortion to begin with).
Ralph Northam, the current governor of Virginia, fell into this trap in 2019, after a proposal to lift the mandate that second-trimester abortions occur in hospitals resulted in Republicans claiming that Democrats supported “abortions up to just seconds before that precious child takes their first breath.” During a subsequent radio interview, Northam was asked about the proper protocol in the event of a child being born after a failed abortion. Instead of pointing out the problem with the question itself—abortions later in pregnancy account for around one percent of all abortions, and failed abortions that result in live births are virtually nonexistent—Northam accepted it at face value, and gave a misinformed answer that created even more confusion around the issue. “The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired,” Northam said at the time. His office later clarified he was “absolutely not” talking about infanticide.
It is undoubtedly positive that Democratic politicians are beginning to see abortion rights as a winning issue for their base: McAuliffe called it a “huge motivator for individuals to come out and vote.” But if Democrats aren’t confident about the right way to talk about abortion—let alone clear on the basic facts—their conservative opponents can easily turn their ostensibly pro-choice position into a conciliatory one. Not only is that counterproductive for the abortion rights movement, creating more stigma and shame around the procedure, but it doesn’t win you any votes either.