In the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie have faced off in two debates -- neither of which has included a question about their positions on abortion. On October 9, Northman and Gillespie will participate in a third debate, moderated by NBC affiliate WCYB anchor Paul Johnson and featuring reporter Carmen Forman as a panelist. Given Gillespie’s known extremism on abortion and reproductive rights, Johnson and Forman have a responsibility to ask both candidates about their views on the issue.
The first two debates did not include any questions about abortion
Moderators didn’t ask any questions about abortion during the first gubernatorial debate. The first 2017 Virginia gubernatorial debate was held on July 22 and was moderated by PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, who moderated a 2013 gubernatorial debate as well. Despite the stark contrast between Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam’s positions on abortion access, Woodruff failed to ask any questions relating to the topic. The only mention of reproductive care in the debate came in the form of a question from Northam, who asked Gillespie about his position on long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs). [Media Matters 9/19/17; YouTube, 7/22/17]
Abortion was not addressed during the second debate. In the second gubernatorial debate, moderator Chuck Todd of MSNBC, who also moderated a debate in the 2013 election cycle, failed to question the candidates about their positions on abortion. Although abortion was not specifically discussed, in responding to a comment by Gillespie about race relations, Northam mentioned bills vetoed by the current governor that discriminated against women’s access to reproductive care. [C-Span, 9/19/17]
A majority of new anti-choice restrictions have been developed and passed at the state level
Broadly: Since 2010, “338 laws that restrict reproductive rights” and abortion access “have been enacted” at the state level. Since 2010, “338 laws that restrict reproductive rights” and abortion access “have been enacted” at the state level, according to Broadly's Gabby Bess. Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, explained to Bess that experts didn’t “see this trend reversing anytime soon” regardless of who controls the presidency. As Nash told Bess, “It's been hard to remind people that the restrictions aren't just going to be at the federal level,” because “the composition [of state legislatures] was so far skewed right already, it looks like we will have another year where abortion and restrictions on family planning are on the front burner.” From Broadly:
The analysis, conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, notes that this has been happening for a long time as Republican-led state legislatures have continued their project of steadily dismantling abortion rights. A total of 338 laws that restrict reproductive rights have been enacted since the Republicans took control of the majority of state governments in 2010. Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, doesn't see this trend reversing anytime soon—and not just because of President-elect Donald Trump's incoming administration.
“It's been hard to remind people that the restrictions aren't just going to be at the federal level,” Nash said over the phone. Over the past six years, she explained, state laws restricting abortion have not slowed. In 2015, 57 anti-abortion restrictions were passed, and while the 50 passed this year may seem like a slight reduction, Nash says that we shouldn't expect the assault on reproductive rights to diminish.
“One of the disturbing things is that 50 restrictions were enacted in a year when a handful of state legislatures weren't in session,” she explained. “We typically see more enactments [of anti-abortion laws] in the first year of the session.” The reason for this is because some state legislatures, like Texas, meet biennially, on odd-numbered years. Lawmakers in those states weren't able to introduce any new bills last year, but now the floodgates are open. “That's why we saw 92 [restrictions] in 2011, 70 in 2013, 57 in 2015,” she said.
Adding to the grim prospects for 2017, Iowa and Kentucky can now count themselves among the majority of states with Republicans in complete control of their legislatures. “Given that the composition [of state legislatures] was so far skewed right already, it looks like we will have another year where abortion and restrictions on family planning are on the front burner,” Nash explained. [Broadly, 1/3/17]
Guttmacher Institute: From January to June 2017, “legislators in six states introduced measures to ban all abortions,” while “legislators in 28 states introduced” more limited restrictions. In a July 2017 evaluation of state-level policymaking on abortion access and reproductive rights, the Guttmacher Institute found that in the first half of 2017, “legislators in six states introduced measures to ban all abortions,” and “legislators in 28 states introduced measures to ban abortions under some circumstances.” The report noted that although some states were successfully passing protections for abortion access, the overwhelming trend at the state level was toward restricting abortion and broader reproductive health care. [Guttmacher Institute, 7/13/17]
Gillespie and Northam have radically different views on abortion
Gillespie said he “would like to see abortion be banned” and endorsed clinic restrictions already invalidated by the Supreme Court. At a candidate forum in April 2017, Gillespie told the audience that he “would like to see abortion be banned,” calling it a “taking of an innocent human life. It is not the law of the land today.” In addition to calling for a complete abortion ban, Gillespie also endorsed the idea of reinstating medically unnecessary restrictions on clinics in the state, claiming that he wanted to “hold [abortion clinics] to at least the same standards that we hold veterinary clinics to.” Gillespie’s claim, in reality, reflects a common anti-choice argument about clinic safety that was ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. [YouTube, 4/4/17; Media Matters, 6/27/16]
Gillespie promised to sign legislation “to ban late-term abortions after an unborn child can feel pain.” In January 2017, Gillespie affirmed his desire to “support and sign” legislation that would ban later abortions. He said, “As governor I would support and sign pain-capable legislation to ban late-term abortions after an unborn child can feel pain, with exceptions for cases involving the life of the mother, rape, or incest.” For years, right-wing media and anti-choice organizations have promoted restrictions on later abortion procedures based on the inaccurate argument that fetuses can feel pain at around 20 weeks during a pregnancy. [Ed for Virginia, 1/27/17; Media Matters, 10/2/17]
Gillespie promised to defund Planned Parenthood and inaccurately claimed that “taxpayer dollars” pay for “abortion in any instance without limitations.” At a “town-hall-style” event during Gillespie’s “InformED Decisions” tour, the Republican candidate promised to defund Planned Parenthood, saying, “At the state level, I would sign legislation that would say we’re not going to fund that $26,000 for Planned Parenthood.” Gillespie continued by inaccurately alleging that “taxpayer dollars” pay for “abortion in any instance without limitations.” In reality, the Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funds from being used to support abortion services -- a restriction many states emulate when allocating Medicaid grants and state health care dollars. From The Washington Post:
AUDIENCE MEMBER: President Trump has promised to stop funding to the abortionists at Planned Parenthood. Will you follow his lead and keep Commonwealth's dollars from going to the abortionists at Planned Parenthood? Many of us are tired of our taxes or state-funding killing these unborn babies. Thank you.
ED GILLESPIE: Thank you for your question. Let me share with you a couple of things. First of all, I am pro-life, and I have exceptions in my view in terms of when the life of the mother is in jeopardy or in instances that involve rape or incest, but I do think there is -- and I think those are exceptions I know not everyone agrees with, but I believe those are the right exceptions.
But there’s for a long time -- and to be clear too, my opponent supports abortion in any instance without limitations, regardless of where in the pregnancy or because the child, unborn child is a girl or a boy, and I think that’s outside the mainstream, to be honest with you, but also paid for with taxpayer dollars and that has been a longstanding consensus in America that, regardless of your position on the view, we shouldn’t have taxpayer funding for abortion.
Now in Virginia, Planned Parenthood, according to news accounts, the amount of taxpayer funding they get is $26,000 annually. And I would not -- I do not support them.
Northam previously said that the decision to have an abortion, “whether it is at 20 weeks or eight weeks,” should be “between the woman and her doctor.” Northam supported abortion access during his 2013 campaign for lieutenant governor. According to The Roanoke Times, Northman “made women’s rights one of his most important issues” and described harmful anti-choice legislation as “an attack on women’s reproductive care.” While talking about access to abortion, Northam explained that the decision to have an abortion, “whether it is at 20 weeks or eight weeks,” should be “between the woman and her doctor.” [The Roanoke Times, 9/14/13]
Northam said 20-week abortion bans are trying to “essentially ban abortions” and must be rejected because “we cannot go back to the days before Roe v. Wade.” In December 2016, Northam spoke out against the passage of Ohio’s extreme and unconstitutional 20-week abortion ban, explaining that the goal of such legislation was to “essentially ban abortions.” Northam continued, arguing that such bills must be rejected because “we cannot go back to the days before Roe v. Wade.” From a Northam for Governor December 2016 press release:
Northam: But I want to tell you what happened yesterday in Ohio. I don’t know if anybody’s been looking at the news. Yesterday, they passed a bill in Ohio that says that you cannot do an abortion after 20 weeks, even – even if a physician like me sits down with the mother and father and says that your child is no longer viable. What they just did in Ohio, they said that they’re going to get between the doctor and the patient, and saying despite your discussion, despite what you want to do, we’re going to make you continue to carry that fetus that is no longer viable that will not be able to take in a breath of oxygen, but we’re going to make you carry to term. Is that right? [...] But what they want to do in Ohio is essentially ban abortions. We cannot go back to the days before Roe v. Wade, we cannot let that happen. [Northam for Governor, 12/15/16]
Northam has supported Planned Parenthood because the organization provides “vital medical services.” In a February 2017 press release, Northam noted that “Planned Parenthood health centers provide vital medical services,” and promised “to stand against any attempt to restrict a woman’s access to the healthcare she deserves.” Notably, Northam highlighted the essential role Planned Parenthood plays in many communities where its clinics are the “only affordable medical provider.” From the press release:
It seems that not a day goes by here in Richmond without more attacks on women's reproductive healthcare. Yesterday, politicians and special interest groups argued that certain forms of contraception cause abortions. Today, the Senate voted to defund Planned Parenthood. … Planned Parenthood health centers provide vital medical services to communities across the Commonwealth, including cancer and STI screenings. In some communities, the Planned Parenthood health center is the only affordable medical provider. I will continue to stand against any attempt to restrict a woman's access to the healthcare she deserves. [Northam for Governor, 2/14/17]
As a state senator, Northam rejected a 2012 anti-choice measure that would have required patients to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds “whether or not they consented.” In 2012, then-state Sen. Northam spoke out against Virginia’s transvaginal ultrasound bill, which, according to The Washington Post's editorial board, “would have required women seeking abortions” to receive an ultrasound “whether or not they consented.” The Post explained the harmful nature of such legislation, writing that vaginal probes, which are more invasive than traditional ultrasounds, are “useless in detecting fetal images or even a heartbeat in most pregnancies during the first trimester, when some 90 percent or more of abortions are performed.” As the Post noted, Northam rejected the proposal, calling it ineffective and saying, “I might as well put the ultrasound probe on this bottle of Gatorade. I’m going to see just as much.” [The Washington Post, 2/29/12]
During the 2013 gubernatorial election debates, moderators asked about abortion
During the 2013 election cycle debates, moderators asked four questions about abortion. Media Matters reviewed all Virginia gubernatorial debates during the 2013 election through C-SPAN and YouTube. This analysis showed that questions about abortion were asked about a total of four times, twice in the first debate, twice in the second debate, and never in the third debate. In both the first and second debates, moderators asked one question directly about abortion and an additional follow-up question on the topic. Media Matters reviewed all four questions and found that two framed abortion around legislative restrictions and three treated abortion as an ideological issue. None of the questions asked in 2013 treated abortion as a health care concern or discussed barriers to access.
In the first debate, moderator Judy Woodruff asked two questions about abortion. The first debate in the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race was held on July 20, 2013, and moderated by Judy Woodruff. During this debate, Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe were asked two questions about abortion. The first was a direct question, where Woodruff told the candidates, “I also want to ask you about abortion.” The other question was a follow-up directed to Cuccinelli, in which Woodruff asked if he would sign a life-at-conception bill. [YouTube, 7/22/13]
One question framed abortion as a social or ideological issue. During the first debate, one of Woodruff’s questions about abortion characterized the health service as a social or ideological issue. From the July 2013 debate:
JUDY WOODRUFF: What I wanted to ask both of you about in this time frame were social issues. I raised one of those questions with you, Mr. McAuliffe. I’d like to raise another one with you, Mr. Cuccinelli. And you’re welcome to comment on what Mr. McAuliffe has said about your position on gays, on gay rights, but I also want to ask you about abortion. [YouTube, 7/22/13]
Two questions framed abortion as a legislative issue. Two of Woodruff’s questions in the first debate raised the topic of abortion in relation to legislative restrictions. After the initial question to both candidates about their positions, Woodruff followed up with Cuccinelli, asking if he would support “even tougher restrictions” on abortion like those that existed in other states. After Cuccinelli failed to answer the question, Woodruff followed up by asking directly if he would sign a bill “defining life at conception.” From the July 2013 debate:
JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you as governor whether you would push for even tougher restrictions such as those on states like Louisiana, where they include legally defining life as beginning at conception, in other words, effectively prohibiting virtually all abortions. And on contraception, would you again seek to make several forms, common forms of contraception illegal, as you did several years ago?
WOODRUFF: So, if one of those pieces of legislation like the one I described, defining life at conception, were to come to your desk, you’d sign it? Is that what you said? Is that what you meant? [YouTube, 7/22/13]
Moderator Chuck Todd asked Cuccinelli two questions about abortion in the second debate. During the second debate -- held September 25, 2013 -- two questions were asked about abortion. The first was a direct question, in which Chuck Todd asked about each candidate’s social agenda on “abortion, gay rights, even on climate change.” The second question was a follow-up, in which Todd referenced McAuliffe’s previous response about abortion and characterized Cuccinelli’s views as “ideologically driven.” [C-SPAN, 9/25/13]
In the second debate, both questions framed abortion as a social or ideological issue. During the second debate, both questions about abortion framed the medical procedure as a social or ideological issue. From the September 2013 debate:
CHUCK TODD: Mr. Cuccinelli, I want to go -- a 90-second question to you, the second official question here. Let’s talk about the stereotype that’s been painted of you: that you’ll use your governorship to push a social agenda on abortion, gay rights, even on climate change, that you would be a governor simply for conservatives, and that you will not consider those who are liberals or moderates in your governing. Your response to this stereotype that’s been painted of you?
TODD: Mr. Cuccinelli, as you prepare your 60-second response to Mr. McAuliffe, I was hoping you’d respond to what the Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling said about you and the entire Republican ticket. He said it’s the most ideologically driven ticket that the GOP has ever put forth. And he is worried that it’s pushing away mainstream voters. What do you say? [C-SPAN, 9/25/13]
Media Matters searched available transcripts for debates held during the current election cycle, as well as the 2013 gubernatorial election, on C-SPAN using the terms, “abortion,” “Roe,” “Wade,” “birth control,” “contraception,” “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” “life of the mother,” ” right to choose," “sanctity of life,” “culture of life,” “Planned Parenthood,” “pregnant,” “repro,” “woman,” and “women” to identify all questions posed to candidates addressing abortion-related topics. For the two debates without available transcripts, Media Matters listened for the aforementioned terms and transcribed relevant sections.
If a moderator asked a follow-up question after a candidate responded, it was counted as an additional question. A secondary code was also applied when a moderator or panelist question invoked judicial appointment litmus tests, cited religion or legislative restrictions, or referred to abortion as an ideological or social issue. These secondary coding categories were non-exclusive. Two coders reviewed all questions and had to agree on inclusion as an abortion-related question and on any applicable secondary coding.
UPDATE: Pro-choice groups called on third debate moderators to ask about abortion
Pro-choice groups called on moderators of the third debate to “ask the candidates how they plan to address the crisis of abortion access in Virginia.” On October 6, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia shared a letter released by a coalition of reproductive rights groups, advocates, and health care providers calling on the moderators of the third debate to ask about abortion. According to the letter, moderators must “ask the candidates how they plan to address the crisis of abortion access in Virginia” so that voters can see “the stark contrast between the candidates on these vital issues.” The letter went on to describe these differences, highlighting Republican candidate Ed Gillespie’s extreme views on abortion and contraceptive access, which they described as “out of step with the priorities of hardworking Virginians.” From a NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia press release:
Dear Mr. Paul Johnson and Mrs. Carmen Forman,
Debates are a critical opportunity to hold candidates accountable on issues that directly impact the lives of all Virginians. Few things are as important to the wellbeing of citizens across the Commonwealth than the ability to decide if, when, and how to raise their family. Indeed, as the Washington Post recently reported, access to basic reproductive healthcare, including birth control and abortion care, has become one of the most salient points of contrast between candidates running up and down the ballot in Virginia. Yet, voters have been denied a robust debate on these topics despite the stark contrast between the candidates on these vital issues. The reason for this is simple: no moderator has brought it up. We write to you today to urge you to correct this deficiency.
For that reason, we request that you ask the candidates about how they plan to address the crisis of abortion access in Virginia. This crisis leaves women across the commonwealth without full control over their own bodies and their own lives. It threatens our health and our economic security.
In fact, Ed Gillespie’s views on reproductive rights and abortion are out of step with the priorities of hardworking Virginians. Ed Gillespie has called for abortion to be completely banned, a view held only by those in the outermost fringe of his base. Gillespie has also supported teaching that birth control is “a sin,” and believes that restricting abortion is a “central role of government.” Ed Gillespie and the rest of his GOP slate: Jill Vogel, candidate for Lieutenant Governor, and John Adams, candidate for Attorney General, have imposed their personal views throughout their careers, yet they have never had to answer for their actions on a public stage. [NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Press Release, 10/6/17]