By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; B02
Virginia Del. Robert G. Marshall apologized Monday to people with disabilities for remarks suggesting that women who have abortions risk having later children with birth defects as a punishment from God.
Marshall (R-Prince William) made the comment Thursday at a news conference calling for an end to state funding to Planned Parenthood. Calling the nonprofit group "Planned Barrenhood," Marshall joined the Virginia Christian Alliance, several African American ministers and others who blamed the abortion provider for a host of social ills.
"The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion who have handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the firstborn of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children," Marshall said.
"In the Old Testament, the firstborn of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord," he added. "There's a special punishment Christians would suggest -- and with the knowledge that they have in faith, it's been verified by a study from Virginia Commonwealth University -- first abortions, of a first pregnancy, are much more damaging than later abortions."
The VCU study he referred to was published in 2008 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health and suggested that there is a higher risk of premature birth and low birth weight in children born to women who have had an abortion.
Few seized on the remarks at the time Marshall made them. But outrage built on social networking sites and political blogs after some Virginia newspapers picked up the story from Capital News Service, a program at VCU's School of Mass Communications.
"I am amazed that someone has been able to slander my child, my wife and my God in one comment," said Brett Wills, 38, a Staunton paint salesman who is the father of an 8-year-old boy with autism. "To imply that someone's disabilities are an act of God to punish women in an immoral society is just the most outrageous thing I've ever heard."
An online petition called for Marshall's resignation.
Marshall, appearing shaken by criticism gone viral, said his remarks had been shortened in some news reports and twisted out of context.
Marshall said his broader point on Thursday was that he had collected a substantial amount of published medical research suggesting that abortions raise the risk of miscarriage and birth defects in subsequent pregnancies and that those findings echoed the Bible's teaching that abortion is wrong.
"The point is, there are profound consequences to the act of abortion," Marshall said.
Late Monday, his office released a formal apology. Addressing the story that his office said had "conveyed the impression that I believe disabled children are a punishment for prior abortions," Marshall explained:
"No one who knows me or my record would imagine that I believe or intended to communicate such an offensive notion. I have devoted a generation of work to defending disabled and unwanted children, and have always maintained that they are special blessings to their parents. Nevertheless, I regret any misimpression my poorly chosen words may have created as to my deep commitment to fighting for these vulnerable children and their families."
Marshall said in an interview that his belief in the sanctity of all life was demonstrated by his commitment to seeking state-mandated insurance coverage for specialized therapy needed by autistic children, a stance so at odds with his own party's that he said he was threatened with expulsion from the Republican caucus last year.
Nancy Mercer, executive director of ARC of Northern Virginia, an advocacy and assistance group for the disabled, said that Marshall has been supportive of the needs of people with disabilities but that his remarks on Thursday were insensitive, particularly when budget cuts threaten services for them.
"Families are reeling, and then to have this come on top of it added insult to injury," she said.
Even some allies in the cause distanced themselves from Marshall's remarks.
"I think there are studies medically demonstrating that there are future health risks to abortion," said Chris Freund, a spokesman for the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia. "To say that's evidence of God's judgment goes too far."
Jennifer McMillen, whose 8-year-old son has autism and cerebral palsy, said she was outraged.
"Quite honestly, I don't care what he intended to say," said McMillen, 37. "His comments were inappropriate and unacceptable, and something needs to be done."