Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli (R) talk prior to a debate hosted by NBC4 in McLean, Va. on Sept. 25. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)
In the Virginia governor's race, the perennial hot-button issue of abortion keeps creeping into the dialogue.
Each candidate portrays the other as an extremist, although on opposite ends of the spectrum, on an issue that could have an impact in a state where 54 percent of the approximately 4.8 million voters are women. Polls have shown Democrat Terry McAuliffe with a wide lead over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli among female voters.
Cuccinelli opposes abortion except when the mother's life is in danger -- a position McAuliffe called "very extreme" because it would not allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or to protect the mother's health.
The Republican claims McAuliffe favors taxpayer-funded abortion even in the third trimester. That makes McAuliffe "the only candidate with an extreme position on life," according to Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix.
McAuliffe calls his opponent's claim about his position false and said he would leave existing abortion laws intact. Virginia law currently prohibits third-trimester abortions, and public funding is available for abortion only in cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment or life endangerment.
The Democrat does favor repealing a 2012 law requiring ultrasounds for women seeking abortion and finding a way to circumvent new state Board of Health regulations requiring all Virginia abortion clinics to meet the same strict building standards as newly constructed hospitals. The board initially exempted existing clinics from the building standards but reversed itself after Cuccinelli told members they exceeded their authority and threatened not to represent them in court if anyone sued.
Other laws require "informed consent,'' a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion, and parental consent for minors.
The General Assembly has rejected several other abortion-related measures in recent years, including one the McAuliffe camp cited as proof that Cuccinelli wants a broader ban on abortion.
The so-called personhood bill would grant the full rights of a person to an embryo from the moment of fertilization. Cuccinelli unsuccessfully co-sponsored such legislation in 2007, and other versions of the measure have failed as recently as last winter.
Abortion rights supporters have said the legislation could outlaw abortion, but University of Virginia constitutional law professor Kevin Walsh said that can't happen as long as the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision affirming the constitutional right to an abortion remains intact.
"Federal constitutional rights always trump your state law," he said. "This would have more symbolic effect than practical effect, but that doesn't make it irrelevant for either side."
Katherine Greenier, a women's rights lawyer with the ACLU of Virginia, acknowledged that the bill would not immediately affect abortion but said it would trigger a ban in Virginia if the Supreme Court ever reversed Roe v. Wade.
And that is clearly the bill's intent, according to Alena Yarmosky of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
"There's little point in passing a bill like that otherwise," she said.
Yarmosky worries that Cuccinelli's election would boost the prospects of the personhood bill and other failed measures. Lawmakers have rejected bills to prohibit abortions simply because parents aren't happy about the gender of the fetus, and to bar all abortions after 20 weeks.
"As extreme as Virginia has gone over the past few years, there's certainly some other bills out there we've managed to defeat," Yarmosky said. "If elected governor, we're sure Cuccinelli would continue as he's done as attorney general and keep up these attacks on women's health."
McAuliffe vowed to "be a brick wall" blocking any further abortion restrictions if elected.
Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia, said that puts McAuliffe outside the mainstream.
"Polls show the majority of Americans support reasonable restrictions on abortion," she said.