In a close race on Tuesday, Terry McAuliffe edged out his Republican opponent to become the next governor of Virginia. National women’s health organizations like Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America are celebrating his victory. “This election was a strong rejection of the Tea Party efforts to insert the government into women’s health,” the president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Cecile Richards, noted in a statement.
Indeed, when it comes to reproductive rights issues, McAuliffe represents a stark departure from his opponent. Ken Cuccinelli has an extremely conservative record on women’s health — he has sought to defund Planned Parenthood, he was a key backer of a proposed law to force women to undergo vaginal probes before being allowed to get an abortion, he pressured the state’s health board to approve new restrictions that are forcing abortion clinics to close, he’s helped funnel money toward right wing “crisis pregnancy centers” that lie to women, and has even advocated for measures that would outlaw some types of birth control.
Women’s distaste for those positions was evident at the polls. MSNBC’s Irin Carmon points out that African-American, Latina, and unmarried women turned out to vote for McAuliffe in numbers close to Barack Obama’s 2012 election — somewhat surprising for an off-year like 2013. And among the voters who said that abortion was the most important issue to them, 59 percent chose McAuliffe over Cuccinelli.
That makes sense considering the current atmosphere in the state. For Virginia women, the stakes were higher than simply preventing Cuccinelli from getting to the governor’s mansion. The war on women is already raging there. Under current Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), Virginia has blocked low-income women’s access to abortion, banned women from getting abortion coverage under Obamacare’s health insurance marketplaces, approved new restrictions on abortion clinics, and restored funding for abstinence-only education programs.
Could Terry McAuliffe help turn the tide?
Practically speaking, not immediately. There’s still a lot of GOP influence in the state. Virginia’s House of Delegates is controlled by Republicans, and the state Senate is still up for grabs. An extremely close race between the Attorney General candidates will help determine whether Democrats can edge out Republicans in the Senate, but it’s too close to call yet.
And it’s also important to remember that Virginia’s Board of Health is one of the most important entities in the state when it comes to protecting abortion access. The supposedly nonpartisan board was stacked with abortion opponents during McDonnell’s term, and was ultimately responsible for approving the new regulations on abortion clinics — a move that has already forced clinics in the state to close their doors. It’s no secret that the recent appointees are targeting reproductive health. Last year, Virginia health commissioner Dr. Karen Remley resigned from her position on the Board in protest of its relentless focus on restricting access to abortion clinics.
A legal challenge to that new clinic regulations is currently winding its way through the courts. Unfortunately for Virginia women, that lawsuit may simply have to run its course.
Members of the Board of Health are appointed by the governor, so McAuliffe’s win certainly ensures that he will exert some influence over who sits on it. Eventually, he’ll be able to shift the makeup of the Board and roll back the new rules for abortion clinics (if they haven’t already been struck down in the courts). Appointees serve four-year terms, however — so unless additional members follow in Remley’s footsteps and turn in their resignation, it will take some time for McAuliffe’s picks to make their way onto the Board.
Nonetheless, McAuliffe’s win is certainly good news for women’s health supporters. A pro-choice lawmaker in the governor’s mansion will help prevent the state from continuing to chip away at reproductive rights, exerting veto power over future proposals to curtail abortion access. “Terry McAuliffe will fight for women’s health and rights as our next governor. He will work to protect Virginia women’s access to birth control, preventive health care, and safe and legal abortion, and pledged to stand like a ‘brick wall’ when our rights come under attack,” the executive director of Planned Parenthood’s Virginia PAC, Cianti Stewart-Reid, said in a statement.
Aside from the notable exceptions in California, Oregon, and Washington, that’s become the new status quo for abortion rights. It’s proven difficult for supporters to aggressively push their agenda or enact any proactive measures to expand reproductive rights — instead, they’re constantly put on the defensive, hoping only to prevent further attacks. That’s not always enough. When it comes to the damage that Virginia has already done, there’s a lot of lost ground to regain.