Virginia Could Be Key to Abortion Access in the South. Its Laws Could Hinge on This Democratic Primary

Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, gestures as she delivers a speech on redistricting during the House session at the Capitol, Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By Dogwood Staff

May 15, 2023

Originally published by The 19th by Mel Leonor Barclay

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PETERSBURG, Va. — Urban Baby Beginnings’ new site includes a squishy playroom for toddlers to join their moms during appointments, a floor mat with an inflatable birthing ball to practice labor positions, and offices for private and sometimes difficult conversations. 

Lashrecse Aird, who is running for a Virginia state Senate seat, wanted to show how maternal health and reproductive rights intersect, and that both issues need as many allies as possible in the Virginia legislature. 

“Today’s visit is a reminder that not only what happens prior to conceiving matters, the conditions that you’re in matter, what happens while you’re actively pregnant matters. And if things don’t go right, the decisions and options and choices you have also matter,” Aird said in an interview at Urban Baby Beginnings, a nonprofit that offers maternal health services, as a part of a campaign tour organized by Emily’s List to highlight the candidate’s support for reproductive rights. 

As abortion access continues to dwindle in the South, its future in Virginia is set to loom large in this fall’s legislative elections. But this summer, before the parties duke it out for control of the statehouse, abortion rights advocates are eyeing a key primary that will pit Aird against the last anti-abortion-rights Democrat in Virginia. 

The incumbent, Sen. Joe Morrissey is Catholic and says he is personally opposed to abortion. While he supports some access to the procedure, the Democrat has equivocated on what type of abortion restrictions he would support. Morrissey, who is vying for another term representing the blue-leaning district located south of the state capital of Richmond, has faced a series of personal scandals while in office, including a conviction over a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old. 

Aird, the chief of staff to the president of a local vocational college, served three terms in the Virginia House, becoming a prominent voice in the chamber on education and racial justice. In a stunning upset, Aird was swept off her House seat in the same red wave that delivered victory for Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin — the first Virginia Republican to win statewide in more than a decade. 

Early voting has already started for the June 20 primary between Aird and Morrissey, which will be the first clash over reproductive rights at the ballot box in Virginia this year. Later in the fall, voters will decide control of both legislative chambers. If Republicans take control of the statehouse, Youngkin could have a clear path to push through his proposed 15-week abortion ban or another proposal to restrict access to abortions. 

Heading into the state’s most recent legislative session, Democratic leaders in the Virginia Senate promised to use their narrow one-seat majority to block Youngkin’s efforts on abortion. Morrissey, however, was the linchpin, saying in an interview leading up to the session that he would keep an “open mind” on proposals to restrict access to abortion. Ultimately, a special election elsewhere in Virginia delivered one more seat for Democrats in the state Senate, illustrating the tight margins within which both parties are operating. 

In a letter endorsing Aird, the six Democratic women in the Virginia Senate issued a public rebuke of Morrissey, accusing him of having “leveraged his votes on this issue as a cudgel against fellow caucus members.” 

“This collective endorsement lifts up a candidate who has been a strong and unrelenting voice for women’s rights, reproductive health care, social justice and equity,” the six state senators wrote in a March letter, led by caucus chair Sen. Mamie Locke. 

They also criticized Morrissey, a disbarred defense attorney, over the public scandals that they say have “drawn attention to himself rather than to the needs of his constituents.” 

Morrissey was convicted in 2014 for a misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor due to his sexual relationship with a 17-year-old law firm assistant who later became his wife. The two had four children together before separating; they are now in the midst of a legal dispute. Former Gov. Ralph Northam pardoned Morrissey shortly before he left office.

In an interview, Morrissey said that Aird has misstated his position on abortion. Morrissey pointed to several interviews with local news outlets in which he says that abortion should be a private decision between women and their physicians and also that he supports exceptions to abortion bans for the health of pregnant patients, rape and incest. Asked why the state would need exceptions even though the procedure is already legal up to fetal viability, and if he was satisfied with the state’s current abortion laws, Morrissey said he supports restricting the procedure at the point when a fetus can feel pain. 

While physicians say fetuses are unlikely to feel pain until about 27 weeks — past the point of viability — anti-abortion advocates have used the argument to push for 20- and 15-week abortion bans. Youngkin’s 15-week proposal is also based on arguments of fetal pain.

In an interview before publication of this article, Morrissey did not clarify at what point he thought lawmakers should draw the line. But in a call after publication, he said he has not decided. “I haven’t figured it out. I want to hear testimony about what the point is when a fetus feels pain,” he said. “I want to find out what that period is.”

Some elected Democrats say they are personally opposed to abortions but support protecting the legal right to choose and access the procedure. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, for example, says he is pro-life but supports federal proposals to codify abortion rights into law. 

Morrissey’s unclear position on abortion policy is viewed as a critical liability by abortion rights advocates, particularly in light of Youngkin’s desire to pass anti-abortion legislation. While the governor could not get his proposal through the GOP-controlled House this past session, advocates worry that bans like the one coming out of Florida could embolden Youngkin and state Republicans to move on the issue if they gain control of the state Senate and hold on to their House majority. 

Virginia is also quickly becoming an important access point in the South for abortions. This summer, the Florida Supreme Court could pave the way for the state’s new six-week abortion ban to take effect, sending millions of people facing unwanted pregnancies to look for care elsewhere. 

Georgia, too, has a six-week abortion ban in place. South Carolina remains on the verge of approving its own six-week abortion ban. And in North Carolina, Republicans have passed and say they have the votes to override a veto on a 12-week abortion ban. To the west of these Atlantic states is a wall of states with their own strict abortion bans. 

It’s easy to see how Virginia could quickly become the last state in the South with access to abortions beyond 12 weeks of pregnancy. 

“Virginia could lose our reproductive rights as soon as next year, depending on the outcome of this year’s elections,” Jamie Lockhart, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, said at  a news conference held by reproductive rights groups in Hopewell, Virginia, this month. It is rare for reproductive rights groups to get involved in Democratic primaries.

Lockhart noted that Morrissey was the only Democratic state senator to vote against the Reproductive Health Protection Act in 2020, which made it easier for Virginians to access abortions. Earlier this year, he was also the only Democratic state senator who declined to support a proposal to bring a constitutional amendment on reproductive rights before Virginia voters. 

“With our reproductive rights and freedoms literally hanging by a one-vote margin in the state Senate, it is imperative for the voters of [Senate District 13] to understand what is at risk and who they can trust,” said Tarina Keene, the executive director of REPRO Rising Virginia. 

Aird served in the Virginia House for five years and was known for delivering resonant floor speeches on racial justice, including the disparate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Hispanic people in Virginia, as well as education and voting rights. 

On reproductive rights, Aird helped expand access to doulas in Virginia by creating a policy to certify and reimburse the birth workers. Aird also sponsored successful legislation that banned the use of no-knock search warrants in the state, known as Breonna’s Law, after the police killing of Breonna Taylor.  

Aird is a mom to two boys and says her support for abortion rights stems from her mother’s experiences and struggles after giving birth to her. 

“My mother had me when she was a teenager, and that created any number of hardships and barriers. I didn’t know it at the time, but they reminded me of the difference between making that decision to move forward [with a pregnancy] and not,” Aird said. 

Reproductive choice and quality of life, she said, are all “intrinsically linked together.” 

“Your economic viability, your overall and general health, your education — I watched her have to struggle to complete her education. I didn’t know that I was going through those things to be a voice at some point. Everything in this moment goes back to those early beginnings in what I watched my own mother experience.” 

Virginia Could Be Key to Abortion Access in the South. Its Laws Could Hinge on This Democratic Primary
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