The Corner

Politics & Policy

What Northam’s Walk Back Really Means

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam speaks at a news conference in Arlington, Va., November 13, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

After a disastrous interview yesterday morning on WTOP radio, Virginia governor Ralph Northam attempted some damage control that somehow muddled the situation even further. That interview, of course, dealt with a bill proposed in Virginia that would significantly loosen the state’s limits on abortion in the last three months of pregnancy. The sponsor of the legislation, Kathy Tran, conceded during questioning that her bill could permit a woman to receive an abortion even during labor.

Asked about Tran’s bill and her comment, Northam offered some thoughts that ended up touching off a firestorm: “When we talk about third-trimester abortions, these are done with the consent of obviously the mother, with the consent of the physician — more than one physician, by the way — and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s non-viable,” he said. This was objectionable enough, but the governor went on.

“If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen,” Northam continued. “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.”

For many observers, this sounded a bit too close to possible infanticide. After Northam’s interview became the subject of scrutiny, his spokesperson offered a statement on the governor’s remarks:

Republicans in Virginia and across the country are trying to play politics with women’s health, and that is exactly why these decisions belong between a woman and her physician, not legislators, most of whom are men.

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 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.

Virginia law currently prohibits third trimester abortions, except in the extreme circumstances in which a woman’s life or health is at risk and that risk is certified by three physicians.

This statement is a bizarre mixture of walking back and doubling down. In the second paragraph, Northam’s spokesperson appears to be suggesting that the governor’s comments on WTOP did in fact refer to letting born-alive infants die without medical care — but only “nonviable pregnancies” (an intentionally unclear term) or infants with “severe fetal abnormalities.” Though the governor doesn’t specify, this language is often used by defenders of abortion to refer to genetic conditions such as Down syndrome. Considering that Tran’s bill would also downgrade the requirement to provide medical care to newborn infants from a “must” to a “shall” standard, the governor’s unwillingness to explicitly condemn post-birth killing gives little comfort.

The final sentence of the statement, meanwhile, appears to contradict the rest of it and affirm the current state of Virginia law. So does Northam support Tran’s late-term abortion expansion, as he attested earlier this month, or not? Setting aside what he may or may not have meant about caring for newborns after birth, Northam has steadfastly refused to articulate whether he supports late-term abortion more broadly, including of viable fetuses — the majority of which are aborted for reasons other than a woman’s health, according to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute.

Apparently still afraid he hadn’t been clear enough, Northam retreated on Twitter to the comfortable trench of having been victimized: “I have devoted my life to caring for children and any insinuation otherwise is shameful and disgusting,” he wrote Wednesday evening. But of course, no one was insinuating any such thing — the criticism centered around direct quotes from his interview and his inability or unwillingness to clarify them.

“What’s shameful is that you’re too cowardly to say point blank that it’s wrong to leave babies to die after birth,” Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) said in a statement this morning provided to National Review. “You could have said that yesterday. But because you’re terrified of an extremist pro-abortion lobby that now defends even infanticide, you’re still ducking.”

Sasse wasn’t the only U.S. senator to notice Northam’s day-long equivocations. In addition to the Nebraska senator’s comment to National Review on Wednesday, his fellow Republican senators Josh Hawley (Mo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), and Ted Cruz (Texas) all commented on the controversy as well.

Hawley even called for the Senate to vote on Republican senator Lindsey Graham’s Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act — which bans abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on scientific research suggesting that fetuses can begin to feel pain at that stage of development — and noted that Democratic presidential-primary candidates should be asked about their stance on late-term abortion legislation.

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