Both sides dug in their heels Thursday as Virginia’s raging abortion controversy entered a third day, with Gov. Ralph Northam saying he doesn’t regret his recent comments on late-term abortions and Republicans doubling down on their claims Northam had endorsed infanticide.
In a tightly controlled 10-minute news conference, Northam said he made his abortion remarks as a child neurologist who’s used to having difficult conversations with parents when there’s no hope left for survival.
“I regret that those comments have been mischaracterized,” Northam said. “The personal insults toward me I really find disgusting.”
Though Northam stood by his remarks, Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, the sponsor of the failed abortion legislation that sparked the controversy, told The Washington Post she “misspoke” during a subcommittee hearing by saying her bill would allow third-trimester abortions for mental health reasons up to the moment of birth.
Currently in Virginia, third-trimester abortions are legal if there’s a severe risk to the mother’s life or health. Tran’s legislation would have loosened restrictions on third-trimester abortions.
During his monthly radio appearance Wednesday on WTOP, Northam was asked about Tran’s bill. If a nonviable or badly deformed infant survived birth, Northam said, a woman and her doctor could have a “discussion” about what to do next.
Northam’s office has said the governor was referring only to rare cases of “severe fatal abnormalities,” but Republicans in Virginia and around the country claimed the governor had voiced approval for allowing an infant to die after birth. Two Republican Party of Virginia staffers crashed Northam’s news conference Thursday afternoon, holding signs with photos of babies and text calling infants an “endangered species” and “Public Enemy Number 1” in Northam’s Virginia.
On Thursday morning, House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, rejected the idea that there could be a more charitable interpretation of the governor’s remarks.
“Words have meaning,” Cox said. “You saw the tape.”
Though Republicans had voted down the legislation before a video of Tran’s remarks went viral, the GOP has gone on offense, seizing on clips of Northam’s and Tran’s comments to paint Democrats as extreme ahead of a pivotal election. Republicans hold slim majorities in the House and the Senate. If Democrats flip just a few seats, they would have full control over Virginia government for the first time in decades.
Republicans have compared Tran’s bill to far-reaching abortion legislation recently passed in New York that would permit late-term abortions whenever a woman’s health was threatened, a lower standard than the previous law that allowed such abortions only when a woman’s life was at risk.
Under questioning from Republicans, Tran said her bill would change that standard in Virginia in a similar way.
Expressing horror at the celebratory response to the law in New York, Republicans have warned Democrats would do the same thing if they take control in Virginia.
“The shameful cheering that occurred in Albany last week may be coming to Richmond next year, folks,” said Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford.
Cox said he was “proud” of the questions put to Tran during the hearing. The speaker said he felt it was Republicans’ duty to draw attention to the things Tran said about her own bill.
“This debate needs to be had nationally,” Cox said. “And we’re ready to have this debate.”
Even as Republicans accuse Democrats of refusing to draw a clear line on late-term abortions, Cox refused to say Thursday whether he believes third-trimester abortions should be banned entirely, with no exceptions for the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest.
Northam also refused to discuss Tran’s bill directly after being asked to respond to Republicans’ claims the legislation would allow third-trimester abortions in cases where a woman said she was feeling anxiety about becoming a mother.
“I think all of us would agree that we are always willing to look at legislation, make improvements, have discussions,” Northam said. “But let’s do it in good faith.”
With Republicans at risk of losing their last stronghold of power following a decade of losses in statewide elections, Democrats have said their opponents are overreaching in a way that will only further alienate women.
Attorney General Mark Herring said the behavior from Republicans in the past few days has been “desperate” and “ugly.”
“Kirk Cox has taken his caucus completely off the deep end, accusing Governor Northam of supporting infanticide,” Herring said. “Which would be laughable if it wasn’t such a grotesque and abhorrent claim.”
Though many other Republicans have, Cox has not used the term “infanticide.”
Democratic leaders said Virginia Republicans are continuing an “anti-woman agenda” made famous by the 2012 battle over transvaginal ultrasounds and Republicans’ efforts to impose strict abortion rules, regulations and procedures that abortion-rights advocates say are medically unnecessary.
“Virginia women will not be intimidated by scare tactics,” said House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, who recently became the first woman to lead a party caucus in either chamber. “Virginia women will continue to organize. Virginia women will continue to run for office. Virginia women will continue to win.”
Republican Party of Virginia Executive Director John Findlay, who was accompanied by his pregnant wife, Marissa, said he brought signs to Northam’s news conference to educate the public about a “moral issue of right and wrong.”
Asked to respond to the Democrats’ suggestion that Republicans are desperately grasping for a political foothold after a losing streak, Findlay said: “What I think is desperate is denying your own words.”