Bethany Mandel is an editor at Ricochet and a stay-at-home mother.
Every time President Trump does something unconscionable, an Internet meme circulates among conservatives showing a town under water and a sign, barely visible, reading, “But Gorsuch.” Gorsuch is Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, Trump’s replacement for Antonin Scalia, whose death before the 2016 election may have swayed it in Trump’s favor.
At the first March for Life after Trump’s election and inauguration, there was palpable excitement about Gorsuch and the possibility that his appointment would make it possible to roll back abortion laws that have been on the books for decades, and to block more extreme laws from being passed in the future.
Two years into his tenure, Trump’s overall approval rating is waning. But Democratic lawmakers have given his reelection campaign an enormous gift in the form of proposals to remove limits on second- and third-trimester abortions in states across the country. These efforts would have mobilized the pro-life voters who reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016 in any circumstances. But recent remarks by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) just might be the accelerant that fuels Trump’s return to the White House.
Northam’s comments were part of a discussion of a since-defeated abortion bill co-sponsored by Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax), who had provoked outrage by saying that the legislation would allow a woman to obtain an abortion even if she was in labor.
Appearing on local radio the next day, Northam, who supports the bill, appeared to take the third-trimester abortion a step further, to full-on infanticide. In response to Tran’s comments, Northam explained, “If a mother is in labor . . . 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 mother.”
In his statements prior to that remark, Northam misrepresented the new bill, first stating that it would require more than one physician to sign off (the new bill requires only one, down from the previous law’s requirement of three), and stated that it would apply only in cases where “there may be severe deformities, there may be a fetus that’s nonviable.” Northam appeared to be unfamiliar with Tran’s own remarks the day prior, which clearly stated one physician could sign off on the third-trimester abortion of even a healthy fetus for the sake of the “mental health” of the mother alone.
Northam’s office issued a clarification later in the day Wednesday, explaining, “The governor's comments were limited to the actions physicians would take in the event that a woman [facing nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities] went into labor,” including assessing the baby's prognosis and possible courses of treatment.
That clarification isn’t in the least reassuring to many, who understand now that Northam is not only comfortable with aborting in the third trimester but also with letting parents decide whether or not to resuscitate babies with ill-defined and broadly stated “abnormalities,” and potentially to withdraw care from them. That is, in the view of most pro-life Americans, not about “women’s health” but is quite plainly just infanticide.
The Virginia legislation may have been defeated this week, but a similar bill passed in New York state, which eliminated most of the barriers around obtaining an abortion at any stage in a pregnancy, even in the last days. As Alexandra DeSanctis explained for National Review, the bill uses a standard that provides extremely wide leeway to declare that an abortion is necessary to preserve a woman’s life or her health. Rhode Island is debating a bill that would ban the government from “restrict[ing] an individual person from terminating that individual’s pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to preserve the health or life of that individual.” Vermont lawmakers are advancing a bill that would enshrine the right to abortion in state law.
The “safe, legal and rare” disclaimer that was once on pro-choice messaging has disappeared. There are more abortions after 20 weeks than gun homicides in the United States, and according to research from the Planned Parenthood-affiliated Guttmacher Institute, “data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”
Rolling back restrictions further on these abortions will increase these numbers, and thus, the enthusiasm for Trump’s reelection among pro-life Americans. Writing on Twitter, conservative columnist (and Trump critic) Matt Walsh explained after Northam’s comments, “I’d vote for Trump 50 times if it meant keeping these infanticidal lunatics out of the White House.”
This is an issue that will reappear as similar bills are introduced. And as John McCormack explains for National Review, while no contenders have gone on record about Virginia’s bill, a large number of 2020 Democratic hopefuls have already supported federal legislation rolling back restrictions on state laws limiting third-trimester abortions. They should be asked, and they should have to go on the record, about Tran’s vision of abortion and Northam’s scenario for withdrawing care from living newborns.
If Democrats are truly looking to capture a moderate electorate much more skeptical of late-term abortions than their progressive base, they should answer more carefully than Ralph Northam did.