Candidates running for the 55th District seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates are dusting up over abortion as the 2023 primary season runs down, a surprising ending for the primary race insofar as the candidates’ stated views on abortion don’t differ much.

Former Charlottesville School Board member Amy Laufer is running against emergency room nurse Kellen Squire to secure the Democratic nomination for the recently redistricted and blue-leaning District 55. That district encompasses a large share of Albemarle County, a segment of Nelson and Louisa counties, and a small slice of Fluvanna County. It was mostly a quiet race that took a sudden turn with the emergence of an abortion debate.

The scuffle between Laufer and Squire erupted over Memorial Day weekend. It started with a mailer from the Laufer campaign that accused Squire of being an untrustworthy supporter of abortion rights.

“Kellen Squire’s own words show you can’t trust him to protect reproductive rights,” the mailer said. “With so much at stake for Virginia women, we can’t afford Kellen Squire’s attacks on abortion.”

Laufer based the mailer on remarks she said Squire made several years ago while running against Republican incumbent Rob Bell in the 2017 House of Delegates District 58 race — a historically red-leaning district.

“I’m fervently and unashamedly pro-life,” began a draft 2017 blog post by Squire. “If it were up to me, I’d advocate for the addition of a plank to the Democratic party platform that we eliminate abortion in the Commonwealth of Virginia as soon as possible. But note the wording there — eliminate. Eliminate doesn’t simply mean illegalizing. Because drugs are illegal — frick, we even declared ‘war’ on ’em. And how’s that been working out for our country so far?

“And I don’t care what anyone tells you — ‘pro abortion’ isn’t a thing. It’s just not. On top of that, I’ve seen people come into my ER who have had to have an abortion for medical reasons. Or from complications for legal abortions — and ‘back street’ ones. None of those women did any of those things casually, and I get furious when people try to insinuate they’re taking these issues casually. Not only that, but the only result of the argument being framed that way is that we’ve turned it into a political hot potato that nobody in the legislature really wants to do anything about, lest they lose a reliable voting bloc. ‘Oh, we’d much rather grab attention with a ‘Day of Tears’ than actually work to fix things.'”

Throughout the rest of the post, Squire said that eliminating abortion would mean making sure people do not need to have an abortion in the first place, by improving medical care and adoption and foster care services.

That article was never published anywhere. (A photographed copy of it can be found embedded in this one.) 

“Just for the record, my 2017 website never went live with that language on it while I was running for office,” Squire told Charlottesville Tomorrow. “That was drafted before I announced my campaign. I reached out to folks to see if I could make a pro-choice argument using conservative phrasing. The consensus was that, no, I hadn’t done that — or that even if people got it, enough wouldn’t — so I changed it. One of the people I reached out to for their advice apparently kept screenshots, thinking I instead had some ulterior motive, and here we are.”

Abortion rights will likely be a critical voting issue in the Commonwealth this fall. Currently, abortion is legal in Virginia through the second trimester — about 26 weeks — and into the third with three doctors’ approvals. But Republican lawmakers, including the governor, have been pushing to enact a ban on abortion past the 15 week mark, with some exceptions.

Because the issue looms large on the political horizon, it has generated a lot of attention for the 55th District primary race. Local and national media have all shown up to cover the kerfuffle.

But do these two candidates actually differ on abortion? According to Squire, no.

“I don’t see that she and I differ on abortion insofar as policy goes; merely experience,” he said. “I’ve seen the consequences of what happens when people cannot access abortion care already throughout my career. I’m the only candidate running in Virginia, and one of a handful nationally, who’s actually provided abortion care at the bedside in my role as an ER nurse.”

When asked by Charlottesville Tomorrow to lay out their positions, both candidates said they are firmly in favor of protecting abortion rights in the Commonwealth. And both said they want to see those rights become part of the state’s constitution.

“My position on abortion is and always has been that a woman’s rights and privacy should never be decided by politicians,” Laufer told Charlottesville Tomorrow. “I’ve had a high risk pregnancy and I can assure you that I never once thought that things would be better if the governor had a say in my personal medical decisions.”

In response to the same question, Squire said that “access to abortion needs to be protected unequivocally, particularly as Virginia is now the last bastion of abortion access in the South. Last week, we saw a woman almost die in Tennessee because politicians and lawyers there have said women cannot be trusted to have bodily autonomy unless they are ‘dying enough.’ We know women are coming to Virginia seeking care already.”

But Laufer said that consistency counts on this issue, and Squire’s unpublished blog post shows he can’t be trusted.

“Unlike my opponent, I have never changed my language or beliefs for political expediency,” she said. “I’ve also ran in red districts and I ran as a proud defender of choice.”

Abortion will be a big issue this fall. During the 2022 General Assembly session, seven anti-abortion bills were introduced — though none passed. A bill that would have banned abortion after 15 weeks with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s support also failed to pass the State Senate earlier this year.  

Governor Youngkin still supports the 15-week ban and has said it could still happen in Virginia. But for it to happen, it would need to pass both the state’s House and Senate.

The Democrats have the majority of seats in the Senate right now, making that highly unlikely. But, should Republicans win control of the Senate this fall, and maintain control of the House, where they lead by four seats, an abortion ban becomes far more likely.

That’s an outcome both Laufer and Squire are in perfect agreement on avoiding. And both have promised to vote for the other in the general election this November if they don’t win the primary on Tuesday.


Eileen was Charlottesville Tomorrow's democracy reporter from March through August 2023.