RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A push by Virginia Democrats to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions is erupting into a fierce partisan clash because of a viral video in which a lawmaker acknowledges her legislation would allow abortions up until moments before birth.
Gov. Ralph Northam added gas to the fire Wednesday by describing a hypothetical situation in a radio interview where an infant who is severely deformed or unable to survive after birth could be left to die. That prompted accusations from prominent Republicans that he supports infanticide.
Democrats said their views were being deliberately mischaracterized by the GOP for political gain.
"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," Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said in a statement.
Republicans countered that Democrats were upset because their "extreme" views on abortion were being made clear to the public.
"What my Democratic colleagues are most concerned about is what this moment actually revealed. It was a moment of unbridled honesty about their agenda," said Republican Del. Todd Gilbert, referring to a video exchange between him and Democratic Del. Kathy Tran.
In the video recorded by the Republican Standard, Gilbert asks Tran whether her legislation would let a pregnant woman who is dilating request an abortion if a doctor certified that the woman's mental health was impaired.
Tran can be heard answering questions posed by Delegate Todd Gilbert, a Republican who represents part of the Shenandoah Valley.
"So how late in the third trimester would you be able to do that?" Gilbert asks Tran, referring to the point at which her legislation would allow an abortion in the third trimester.
Tran can be heard expressing her displeasure with the fact that physician witnesses were not able to attend the committee meeting before Gilbert is heard pressing Tran to answer his question.
"The third trimester goes all the way up to 40 weeks," Tran said in response to Gilbert's question. "I don't think we have a limit in the bill."
Gilbert continued: “Where it’s obvious that a woman is about to give birth, would that still be a point at which she could request an abortion if she was so-certified? She’s dilating.”
“My bill would allow that, yes,” Tran answered.
Existing state law does not put an absolute time limit on abortions and Tran's legislation does not alter that.
Her legislation would reduce the number of doctors who would have to certify late-term abortions are needed from three to one. It would also delete the requirement that doctors determine that continuing a pregnancy would "substantially and irremediably" impair a woman's health. Instead doctors would only have to certify that the woman's health was impaired.
Supporters said the changes in law would help reduce the bureaucratic burdens women face when dealing with difficult decisions involving late-term abortions, which often involve serious medical complications.
"We must trust women and their health care providers," Tran said at a Monday subcommittee hearing, where her exchange with Gilbert was recorded.
Opponents of the legislation, which has failed in both the state House and Senate, said it would give essentially allow for late abortions on demand.
Prominent Republicans and conservative media outlets helped spread the video exchange to a wide audience, with more than 2 million views as of Wednesday.
"What is happening in our country. This literally makes me sick to my stomach," tweeted Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in response to the video.
Northam was asked about the video exchange during a regular radio appearance on WTOP-FM Wednesday.
The governor, who is a pediatric neurologist, defended the legislation and noted that late-term abortions are usually done because the infant is severely deformed or unable to survive after birth.
Northam said that if a woman were to desire an abortion as she's going into labor, the baby would be "resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue" between doctors and the mother, leaving open what would happen next.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was one of several Republicans to denounce the comments, tweeting that Northam is openly supporting legal infanticide.
Yheskel, the governor's spokeswoman, said Northam was only trying to describe the "tragic or difficult circumstances" involved in a late-term abortion.
"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.
Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox gave a floor speech — which speakers almost never do — Wednesday where he publicly scolded himself for not doing more to restrict abortions and said he worried Virginia was on the verge of adopting abortion laws similar to those in liberal states. New York just approved an abortion-law overhaul that includes a provision permitting late-term abortions when a woman's health is endangered.
Republicans currently have a narrow majority in the Virginia General Assembly. Virginia is one of only a handful of states to hold legislative elections later this year and Democrats have a strong chance of taking control of the legislature.