Virginia Gov. Northam faces fierce conservative backlash over abortion bill

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam gives his State of the Commonwealth speech in the House chambers at the Capitol in Richmond on January 9. Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges.

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced intense backlash on Wednesday for comments he made about a fellow Democrat’s abortion-rights bill, whose sponsor said it would allow abortion right up to the final moments of pregnancy.

In a radio interview, Northam was asked about the bill brought by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, which sought to roll back restrictions on abortion, including those that take place in the third trimester of pregnancy.

Virginia law allows third trimester abortions in cases in which a woman’s life or health is at grave risk, as certified by three physicians. Tran’s bill would require certification by just one physician, and allow the procedure to take place in a clinic as opposed to a hospital, among other changes.

At a hearing on the bill Tuesday, a Republican delegate had quizzed Tran on whether her bill would allow abortions in the final stages of pregnancy, when the mother is about to give birth. She said it would. The committee rejected her bill.

On WTOP’s “Asks the Governor” program Wednesday, NBC4’s Julie Carey asked Northam if he supported Tran’s bill.

Northam, a pediatric neurologist,, took issue with one aspect of Tran’s bill – related to whether multiple physicians should have to sign off on a late-term abortion – but otherwise seemed to tread lightly on the specifics. He instead spoke broadly about his belief that politicians should leave abortion to women and their doctors.

“I wasn’t there . . . and I certainly can’t speak for Delegate Tran, but … first thing I would say is, this is why decisions such as this should be made by providers – physicians and the mothers and fathers that are involved,” he said.

Northam went on to explain that a third-trimester abortions may involve a fetus that has severe deformities and is not viable.

The same bill has been introduced for three straight legislative sessions but had not received the same kind of reaction from Republicans, who took to social media to decry it as “infanticide” and to attack Northam.

Jim DeMint, former senator from South Carolina, who is chairman of the Conservative Partnership, tweeted “VA Gov Northam is no moderate, this is one of the most vile, radical pro-abortion positions ever put forward. “This is evil. He should recant or resign.”

Ofirah Yheskel, a spokeswoman for Northam, said “No woman seeks a third trimester abortion except in the case of tragic or difficult circumstances, such as a nonviable pregnancy or in the event of severe fetal abnormalities, and the governor’s comments were limited to the actions physicians would take in the event that a woman in those circumstances went into labor.”

“Attempts to extrapolate these comments otherwise is in bad faith and underscores exactly why the governor believes physicians and women, not legislators, should make these difficult and deeply personal medical decisions,” she said.

DeMint’s tweet was in response to a tweet from someone else, who quoted Northam saying, “If a mother is in labor . . . the infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians & mother.”

That quote omitted the deformity and viability issues. Northam’s full comment on WTOP was: “It’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s not viable. So in this particular example, if a mother’s in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired. And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

Northam said on the radio the reaction to Tran’s bill had been “blown out of proportion.” A companion bill had been introduced in the state senate, without the same reaction. Tran is a first term lawmaker who was elected last year in a Democratic wave that nearly erased the GOP majority in the General Assembly.

Northam did take issue with part of Tran’s bill, which sough to eliminate a requirement in current law that more than one physician sign off on a third-trimester abortion.

“I think it’s always good to get a second opinion, and for least two providers to be involved in that decision, bc these decisions shouldn’t be taken lightly,” he said. “And so I would certainly support more than one provider.”



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