Democrat Looks to Shore Up Pro-Choice Credentials in Virginia Governor’s Race

"Now is the time to be proactive and affirmative in protecting and expanding women's access to affordable health care," said Tom Perriello, the target of criticism from some pro-choice advocates.

Tom Perriello's opponent blasted his announcement, citing the candidate’s 2009 vote for the anti-choice Stupak amendment. Tom for Virginia / YouTube

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello said Wednesday that he would propose a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights in his first legislative session should he be elected.

The amendment would be similar to one proposed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) in January and “would guarantee reproductive choice at the state level, safeguarding this fundamental right for women against any potential future threats,” according to a press release from the Perriello campaign. 

“Now that Neil Gorsuch has joined George W. Bush appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, as well as Clarence Thomas, on the Supreme Court, we are one vacancy away from Roe v. Wade being fundamentally threatened,” Perriello, the target of criticism from some pro-choice advocates, said in the press statement. “In the face of threats at the federal level, states must act.” 

“Now is the time to be proactive and affirmative in protecting and expanding women’s access to affordable health care,” Perriello said. “We should be on offense, not defense.”

Rival Democratic candidate, Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam—who is locked in an increasingly tight race for the party’s gubernatorial nomination—”fully supports” such a constitutional amendment, according to a statement to Rewire from campaign press secretary Ofirah Yheskel.

Northam received an endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice America and its Virginia affiliate in March. Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, pointed to Northam’s fight against mandated ultrasounds during his time as a state senator and his work as the state’s lieutenant governor.

The Northam campaign blasted Perriello’s announcement, citing the candidate’s 2009 vote for the anti-choice Stupak amendment, which threatened to derail health care reform and would have prevented subsidized health plans on the insurance exchange from covering most abortion care, during his time in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It’s hard to ignore that the amendment candidate Tom Perriello is proposing would be a safeguard against former Congressman Tom Perriello,” Yheskel said. “The Stupak amendment he supported would have functionally ended abortion coverage and undermined women’s constitutional right to an abortion. His smoke and mirrors efforts are a blatant attempt to distract from his record of using women’s reproductive rights as a bargaining chip during his short stint in Congress.”

At the time of his vote for the Stupak amendment, Perriello claimed it fulfilled his pledge to constituents not to support federal funding for abortion care. But in a January Facebook post he said he has come to “regret” that vote and that it “caused real pain to constituents and other women.” Perriello vowed to “work to roll back harmful restrictions on the right to choose and on abortion providers here in Virginia, oppose a 20-week abortion ban, make contraception more readily available, and ensure abortion care is safe, compassionate and accessible for women when they need it,” if elected.

Ian Sams, communications director for Perriello’s campaign, cited the “unprecedented threats from national and state Republicans—and a Supreme Court just one vote away from potentially overturning Roe” as the reason the Democratic candidate would move swiftly on a constitutional amendment if elected.

An amendment must “be agreed to by a majority of the members elected to each of the two houses,” according to Virginia’s constitution. The amendment is subject to a second vote in the legislature after the next general election; if passed by the majority, it becomes a ballot measure in which the state’s voters have the final say. 

Virginia is not one of the four states with so-called trigger laws on the books that would automatically criminalize abortion if Roe is struck down. But Republicans hold majorities in both chambers of Virginia’s legislature and have repeatedly pushed restrictions that would erode access to abortion care throughout the state.