At a fundraiser at the Country Club of Fairfax earlier this month, an attendee sidled up to Bill Woolf, a Republican running for state Senate, and told him plainly that she was disappointed in his embrace of a “compromise” on “the issue of life.” Woolf, who is running for office for the first time this year, has said publicly he wants to find a “consensus” on abortion. The current consensus among Republican candidates in Virginia is that banning abortion around 15 weeks is a position voters will tolerate.
But the woman wanted to know where Woolf really stood, and whether he would support restricting abortion access even further if he’s elected. He didn’t say no. “I think we have to talk about it, right?” Woolf answered, according to a recording of the exchange shared with Rolling Stone, making him the latest Virginia Republican to leave the door open to a more restrictive ban if his party gains control of the General Assembly this November.
In two separate recordings previously reported by The Washington Post, John Stirrup, a candidate for Virginia’s House of Delegates who is publicly supporting a “reasonable” 15-week ban, told one potential voter, “I would support a 100 percent ban.” He told another, “I’d like to see, you know, [a] total ban.” GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin — who once promised supporters privately he would go “on offense” on abortion if he had a Republican-controlled legislature — told attendees of an online forum earlier this year: “Any bill that comes to my desk I will sign, happily and gleefully, in order to protect life.”
Advocates of reproductive rights have seized on the contrast between GOP candidates’ public and private comments to argue the party cannot be trusted. “Right now, extreme MAGA Republicans are lying to voters, hoping they won’t pay attention to the long list of voting records, financial records, and audio tapes of them saying they will ban abortion,” says Lauren Chou, a spokesperson for EMILY’s List, which has endorsed 29 Democratic pro-choice women in Virginia races this fall, including Woolf’s opponent, House Delegate Danica Roem.
Roem, the first transgender woman to serve in a state legislature, has said she would support a popular referendum on whether to enshrine the right to an abortion in the Virginia constitution. Roem and Woolf are competing for the chance to represent Virginia’s 30th district in the state Senate. The district, which leans Democratic, is seen as one of Republicans best pick-up opportunities.
At the Virginia Country Club, Woolf went on to make a striking admission: Virginia Republicans, he told the woman, are still trying to work out what exactly their position on abortion is. “I think, generally speaking, they are trying to figure out where a lot of people sit on this: Where is the general populace?” In his mind that represented an opportunity. “I think we can start to move the needle if we’re talking about it more,” he said.
Jimmy Spinella, a spokesman for Woolf’s campaign, stood by Woolf’s remarks in a statement. “Moving the needle, from the current policy of abortion up to and after the moment of birth, to a reasonable limit of fifteen weeks, with exceptions for the heinous crimes of rape and incest, as well as to protect the life of the mother, is the exact kind of commonsense and consensus that we see in the Commonwealth around this issue.” (Contrary to Spinella’s claim, abortion is currently legal in Virginia up to the point of viability — the former national standard under Roe, roughly 27 weeks — with very few exceptions.)
Polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of voters in Virginia — 71 percent, per a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute — believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. By that measure, Virginians are more supportive of abortion rights than residents of California or Illinois.
Despite such public sentiment, Youngkin led an effort earlier this year to ban most abortions at 15 weeks gestation, a proposal that included decade-long prison sentences for doctors who violated it. The legislation didn’t make it out of committee in the state Senate, where Democrats currently hold a slim, four-seat majority.
The deciding vote came from Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a practicing OB-GYN, who opposed the bill because it did not include exceptions for fetal abnormalities. With those exceptions, though, Dunnavant — who is running for re-election in another of Virginia’s most competitive Senate districts — says the legislation is “not a ban” but rather a “compassionate and reasonable position.”
Other high profile Republicans now rallying around the 15-week ban have supported much more severe restrictions in the past. In an appearance on Newsmax when she was running for office in 2021, Winsome Sears — now lieutenant governor of Virginia — said that she would support bringing a Texas-style bounty law, banning abortion at six weeks, to the commonwealth. Todd Gilbert, now the speaker of the House of Delegates, once supported a bill that declared life begins at conception and that unborn children would have “all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons” under Virginia law.
“We know that many of the candidates running this cycle, while they’re talking about a 15-week abortion ban, they have supported much more extreme bans,” says Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. In her view, the endgame is no mystery: “Their ultimate goal is to ban abortion.”