By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; B04
Virginia Del. Robert G. Marshall took to the floor of the House of Delegates on Wednesday to dispute reports that he said women who have abortions run the risk of birth defects in later pregnancies as a punishment from God.
As people with disabilities and their advocates continued to criticize Marshall's remarks and call for his resignation, the Prince William Republican addressed fellow lawmakers in an attempt to clarify what he had meant at a news conference Feb. 18 demanding the end of state funding for Planned Parenthood.
Marshall denied saying that disabled children are a punishment from God or even having suggested such a thing. But that notion, he said, "has been repeated endless times in print and in the electronic media without anyone producing the smoking-gun tape."
"Of course, if some wish to make their own inferences, that is their prerogative," Marshall said. "However, they should acknowledge that is what they are doing. Furthermore, it is no one's prerogative to claim I spoke words which never came from my mouth, have never been in my heart and have never been in my public record."
Marshall also called for a correction from Capital News Service, which is produced by journalism students at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Mass Communications and whose report ignited the controversy. Jeff South, an associate professor who oversees the program, said the service stands by its report.
Since the report ran, Marshall has received a barrage of criticism, including a rebuke by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and an emotional floor speech by Del. Robin A. Abbott (D-Newport News), whose son is severely disabled.
MSNBC political commentators Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann have also mocked Marshall, while people with disabilities and their advocates have launched an online petition seeking his resignation.
"The disabled and their families are reacting in part to words I never said, never meant, and don't believe," Marshall said Wednesday. "The news accounts repeating this are not fair. But I continue to apologize to families from the fallout over all this."
At the heart of the controversy are varying interpretations of Marshall's remarks on God, abortion and disabled children. At the news conference, Marshall said:
"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.
"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 to a woman than latter abortions."
Marshall maintains that he was making the point that scientific evidence supports religious teachings that life -- and particularly the Old Testament's regard for the firstborn -- is sacred and should not be tampered with, or else. Critics have charged him with saying that a woman who aborted her first pregnancy risked having a disabled child as the price of sinning.
Marshall urged people to view the same video of his remarks that critics have seized upon as evidence of what he meant.
"I have video of my comments that they can see for themselves that I never made such a comment," Marshall said from the House floor.
The VCU study Marshall referred to at the news conference was published in 2008 in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. It suggested that there is a higher risk of complications in subsequent births to women who have had an abortion. Marshall said Wednesday that he should have been clearer.
"Actions within nature are not the direct actions of God. It would have been better had I used the words, 'natural consequences' to convey my meanings," Marshall said. He also said he has posted excerpts of 250-peer reviewed studies on his Web site.
"Furthermore, my personal and public life show a respect for unwanted or disabled children," Marshall said, including a daughter whom he adopted despite her having possibly inherited a faulty gene that could shorten her life. And he cited his support for health insurance for autistic children.
Marshall also criticized CNS, saying reporter Kelsey Radcliffe did not seek him out for comment about the remarks, made inferences about them, presented them as something he said and edited his remarks mid-sentence -- both in print and in an audio clip -- to omit his citing of a medical study.
"We stand by our report as a fair and accurate account of the press conference that Delegate Marshall held last Thursday," South, the associate professor, said. South said that the reporter did not contact Marshall after the news conference but that no one in CNS thought they should have to.
"Those are Delegate Marshall's words, and I think according to that statement by Delegate Marshall, he is saying that disabled children are a, quote, special punishment under the Old Testament, and that this happens when the firstborn, a child dedicated to the Lord, is aborted, and that, according to his statement, disabled children represent nature taking its vengeance," South said. "That's my reading of the statement."