Virginia Republicans Take Aim at Democrats Over Abortion Expansion

New insurance exchange policy sparks taxpayer-funded abortion debate

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D.) / Getty Images
March 16, 2021

Taxpayer funding for abortion is set to be a major source of contention in Virginia state elections in 2021 after Gov. Ralph Northam (D.) signed a new law that expands insurance coverage to include abortion procedures.

Virginia will now allow health insurance plans purchased through state-run exchanges to cover abortion procedures. The law, signed on Friday, goes into effect in July, four months before voters will elect a new governor. Republican candidates vying for the governorship said the new law will make abortion a major issue, as they try to claw back not only the governor's mansion but also Democratic control of both houses of the state legislature. Rep. Kirk Cox (R.), a gubernatorial candidate who served as House speaker, said Democrats are trying to use the insurance exchange as a backdoor for taxpayer-funded abortion by subsidizing the practice.

"I voted against this bill in the House," Cox said. "I have fought taxpayer-funded abortion at every turn, and one of my first steps as governor would be to advance policies the protect the sanctity of life."

The law is not the first time Northam has drawn fire from pro-life activists and Republican politicians. The Democrat, a career physician, became embroiled in controversy in 2019 when he said that a potential state law could allow physicians to withhold care for infants who survive abortion attempts. Businessman Glenn Youngkin, another GOP gubernatorial hopeful, said that the move is in line with Northam's controversial defense of withholding care from abortion survivors.

"Glenn Youngkin opposes Governor Northam's repeal of the law put in place by Governor Bob McDonnell 10 years ago to protect Virginia taxpayers from being forced to support abortions," Youngkin's campaign said. "We all heard Ralph Northam talk on tape about ending the life of a baby that had already been born. … In order to stop their agenda we must win in November."

Governor Northam's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Pete Snyder, another Republican candidate, said the Democratic push for taxpayer subsidies to pay for abortions is "nothing short of radical."

"As a dad and an unapologetic pro-life Virginian, I believe the pro-abortion agenda of Northam and the career politicians in Richmond is nothing short of radical," he said. "Virginians know we need a conservative governor to protect the rights being stripped away by Northam—especially, the right to life."

Northam is not allowed to run for reelection because of state rules barring governors from serving consecutive terms. State Democrats won control of both houses of the state legislature in the 2019 elections, putting them in position to defend these gains against Republican attacks. Many Democrats are turning to former governor Terry McAuliffe, who leads current polling with 26 percent support, more than double the second place candidate. McAuliffe signaled his support for abortion rights during his tenure as Virginia governor. He threatened to veto a ban on abortion after 20 weeks and wavered on whether he would support a bill easing restrictions on late-term abortions. The McAuliffe campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

"Virginians can bet that another term of Terry McAuliffe would continue to cement the pro-abortion policies that marked the Northam administration," Cox said.

Northam praised the current law for repealing "anti-women's health restrictions on the health insurance exchange in Virginia." But critics said that health plans that receive government subsidies will be permitted to cover abortion, which would effectively mean using taxpayer money to pay for abortions. Virginian pro-life and religious groups echoed these calls to make abortion a significant issue in 2021 and warned that the bill represents a significant step toward taxpayer funding for abortion.

"In many cases, people receive public subsidies to purchase these plans," two leading Virginia Catholic bishops said in a statement. "Beginning July 1, even these taxpayer-funded plans can cover abortions without limitation. This means that taxpayers will be forced to fund plans that cover abortion on demand."

Olivia Turner, president of Virginia Society for Human Life, criticized the move for violating the conscience rights of pro-life Virginians. "Any Virginians in need of affordable care will be unable to find a plan that meets their own ethical objections to abortion," she said. She described the law as the "first step" toward taxpayer funding for abortion, pointing out that the Hyde Amendment is under attack from national Democratic leaders.