Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who purposely avoided divisive social issues during the 2009 campaign, may soon have to weigh in on a controversial anti-abortion measure that could become a troublesome stumbling block on his way to a national political player.
The so-called "personhood" bill defines life as beginning at conception and gives the fetus the same legal rights as an everyday citizen. It already passed the House of Delegates and now needs only Senate approval before it goes to McDonnell.
The bill opens the door for the state to ban abortion if the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade is ever overturned, and some opponents argue that the measure's broad parameters could ban some forms of birth control and the morning after pill.
McDonnell last month reiterated his pro-life stance but said his staff still needed to confirm the constitutionality of the measure. The governor's office said Thursday that McDonnell still doesn't know if he'd sign the bill into law.
A majority of state residents, 58 percent, oppose the personhood bill, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in December, and 54 percent said they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
But Quinnipiac also found that McDonnell remains one of the most popular governors in the country, a status he's maintained largely by avoiding vocal stances on divisive social issues. He'll be out of office at the end of next year, if not sooner: McDonnell is often mentioned as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate and is already playing a national political role as head of the Republican Governors Association.
If McDonnell vetoed the personhood bill, he could offend conservatives who expected sweeping change after giving Republicans a majority in the General Assembly last fall. But signing the bill into law could alienate independent voters with more moderate social views.
Abortion-rights advocates hope McDonnell is wary of offending independents. Ditto for Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who holds the tiebreaking vote in the Senate, and who is expected to run for governor in 2013 against Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Tea Party favorite who announced his support for the personhood bill Wednesday.
"The governor knows some things benefit him and other things, like personhood, won't," said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. "And for Bolling, do you really want to run to the right of Ken Cuccinelli? Not in Virginia."
Bolling "is pro-life and has always been pro-life," spokeswoman Ibbie Hendricks said, declining to speculate on how Bolling might vote.