The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Virginia, abortion furor hits new heights as both sides double down

Virginia Del. Kathy Byron (R-Bedford) listens as House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) speaks at a news conference at the Capitol. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Virginia Republicans doubled down Thursday on their effort to paint Gov. Ralph Northam and other Democrats as radicals who favor infanticide, a sharp shift in political strategy after years of trying to minimize socially divisive issues to win back suburban voters.

And Democrats, who helped create the furor through missteps and unclear statements, also dug in on abortion, trying to paint Republicans as extremists looking to meddle in women’s health care.

It was Day 2 of partisan warfare over an issue that hadn’t been on the Virginia political agenda for years.

The turn was even more remarkable for the personal subtext. House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) is a longtime colleague of Northam’s and the two have enjoyed a close working relationship. But with control of the General Assembly at stake in this fall’s elections, both sides were aggressive.

The uproar began this week when freshman Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax), pitching a bill to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions, said the measure would allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy until the moment she gives birth. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, added to the furor in a radio interview with comments that Republicans took as an endorsement of killing live babies after delivery.

Abortion bill draws outrage

National Republicans — including President Trump and Vice President Pence — and conservative media outlets seized on Northam’s remarks, flagging him as an example of a Democrat with a frightening agenda.

GOP seizes on liberal positions to paint Democrats as radicals

Tran said Thursday that she “misspoke” and acknowledged she was poorly prepared to present the bill — and misrepresented what it did.

But Northam called the infanticide charge “disgusting” and stood his ground, as did Republican leaders. The two sides held dueling news conferences just hours apart on Capitol Square.

At the GOP gathering, Cox said, “I really do feel like we’re at a crossroads in Virginia. I think the Democrats have been very, very clear . . . that their goal is to flip this legislature, flip this House of Delegates and this [abortion bill] will become law.”

Asked whether he truly believed Northam was advocating infanticide, Cox said, “He was very clear in what he said, and I think that was very disturbing.”

At his own news conference, Northam did not clarify his remarks from the day before; instead he gave a full-throated endorsement of abortion rights and attacked Republicans.

“We believe that reproductive freedom leads to economic freedom for women. Virginia Republicans have long advocated for taking those rights away,” Northam said. “There is a stark choice, and Virginians time and again have chosen to support women and their reproductive health.”

The drama over abortion has been a jolt in a legislative session that was otherwise entangled in arcana over tax policy.

Tran’s bill would not have fundamentally changed abortion law in Virginia, where late-term abortions are legal under extreme circumstances. But it would have made the procedure easier to obtain.

Kathy Tran faces death threats in wake of legislative debate

Currently, a woman can terminate a pregnancy in the third trimester only if her life is at grave risk. Tran’s bill would have allowed a single doctor to sign off on the procedure instead of the three required. It also would have removed language requiring that the danger to the mother be “substantial and irremediable.” A subcommittee tabled the bill Monday on a party-line vote.

Similar measures have been introduced and failed the past three years, and a companion bill died in the state Senate last week without comment.

But video of Tran presenting her bill to the subcommittee was posted Tuesday by the Republican Standard and sent out by Virginia Republicans that night.

On Wednesday, Northam was asked about the bill on a radio interview and gave a response that escalated the outcry.

The procedures, Northam said in the WTOP interview, are “done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s not viable. So in this particular example, if a mother’s in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. 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.”

Fox News, Breitbart News, BuzzFeed, the Republican National Committee and national figures including Trump, Pence, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) weighed in, and Twitter storms accused Northam of endorsing the killing of live babies.

Amid the tumult, Northam’s office made clear the governor was talking about prognosis and medical treatment, not ending the life of a delivered baby.

On Thursday, Cox characterized Northam’s words as “hard to believe.” Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the House majority leader, was more direct: “Remember, he first said resuscitate the child if that’s what the parents wanted. . . . The fact that any physician, any God-fearing human being would do anything other than try to breathe life into that child is abhorrent to many of us, and so I can think of no other option at that point other than to allow this living human being to live . . . and the governor meant something completely different than that.”

The 2017 elections nearly wiped out Republicans’ 2-to-1 majority in the House, leaving the GOP with the thinnest of margins. They hold control over the Senate by two seats and the House by three seats.

Until now, Cox has quietly tried to avoid the socially divisive issue of abortion, preferring to position his caucus as moderate problem-solvers in an effort to win back suburban voters who have been abandoning Republicans in recent elections.

But that strategy shifted this week.

“They think that they can make this into an issue that dominates not only this election cycle, but makes the case they wanted that Republicans both in Virginia and in the nation want to make, which is: The Democrats are a scary group of people who are going to ruin your business and justify all kinds of immoral activities,” longtime Virginia political scientist Bob Holsworth said.

Even Republicans close to Northam were lined up behind their leaders. Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), one of Northam’s closest friends in the legislature, said he believed the governor was talking about infanticide.

“Virginia is the petri dish of the radical left now,” Stanley said. “Ralph Northam as I’ve known him is a very plain speaker, he does not fumble over words. He chooses his words very carefully. . . . His words were plainly spoken and were not subject to other interpretations — he doesn’t talk that way.”

Asked at the news conference Thursday to clarify his comments to WTOP, Northam spoke in broad generalities. “As a child neurologist, I have had very difficult conversations with patients and their families during very tragic times, and that is why those discussions should be between a physician such as myself and a patient,” he said.

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) — who has announced his intention to run for governor in 2021 — took the opportunity to remind voters about a now-infamous 2012 GOP bill that would have required most women seeking an abortion to undergo a vaginal ultrasound. That legislation was ultimately modified to specify a less-invasive abdominal ultrasound, but not before turning Virginia Republicans into a punchline for late-night comedians.

Vaginal ultrasound requirement gets killed

“For years Virginia Republicans have thought up more extreme and complicated ways to put themselves in the way of a woman’s right to make her own health-care decisions,” Herring said at the news conference. “These Republicans have tried to force women to undergo an invasive and demeaning vaginal ultrasound. They keep trying to close women’s health centers that provide cancer screenings and family planning. These Republicans have tried to ban some forms of contraception. And these Republican legislators would deny women the right to choose even in the case of rape and incest.”

“And now Kirk Cox has taken his caucus completely off the deep end, accusing Governor Northam of supporting infanticide, which would be laughable if it weren’t such a grotesque and abhorrent claim,” Herring said.

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