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‘It woke a sleeping giant’: Republicans challenge Democrats over N.Y. abortion law, Northam’s comments

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) says comments by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) about late-term abortions “woke a sleeping giant.” (Alex Brandon/AP)

Republicans are moving aggressively to force Democrats to answer for legislation to ease restrictions on late-term abortions and the recent controversial comments by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, sensing a new opening on a divisive issue that could be a factor in the 2020 elections.

President Trump criticized New York Democrats and the embattled Virginia governor in his State of the Union address this week, accusing lawmakers of allowing “a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth” and Northam (D) of basically stating that “he would execute a baby after birth.”

While the president’s descriptions were misleading, they under­scored the GOP’s determination to capitalize on what it sees as Democrats’ unforced errors in the way they have addressed abortion.

“To hear it described by the governor of Virginia in the way he described it was grisly and alarming, I think, to most people, and it woke a sleeping giant,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said of Northam’s comments in a recent radio interview in which he described what would happen if a third-trimester abortion resulted in a live birth.

Republicans said it implied infanticide; Northam later said he was discussing medical treatment that would ensue.

Every day since Trump’s State of the Union speech, House Republicans have unsuccessfully sought unanimous consent for a bill that would require medical care for babies who survive attempted abortions. They have promised to try again in the Democratic-led House on Friday.

In the Republican-controlled Senate, GOP leaders have rallied around a similar proposal.

The push is a part of a broader argument the party is advancing ahead of the 2020 election, with control of the White House and Congress at stake. Republicans are seeking to paint Democrats as a party out of step with the mainstream on several issues, including taxes, health care and abortion rights.

“One of the sadder realizations during the State of the Union was just how extreme the modern Democratic Party has gotten on every issue,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who mentioned abortion in his criticism.

Republicans are also playing to their political base of evangelical Christians, a key voting bloc that has embraced Trump despite his past support for abortion rights and was crucial to his election in 2016. GOP efforts to oppose abortion and confirm like-minded judges to the federal bench have heartened them.

At a closed-door luncheon on Wednesday, Cruz told his colleagues the Senate needed to vote on a bill that Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) put forward Monday that closely resembled the House measure, according to two Republicans familiar with the meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), with whom Cruz has clashed in the past, responded that he agreed on the need to move ahead on the legislation, the Republicans said. McConnell has vowed publicly to revisit the bill.

The Republicans describing the lunch spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a conversation that was not publicized. Representatives for McConnell and Cruz did not comment on the discussion.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) had blocked the bill Monday. In a statement provided by Murray’s office, the senator said that “all this bill does is give Republican politicians more ways to try to interfere with decisions that are between a woman and her doctor.”

As the Virginia legislature failed to pass a bill to reduce restrictions on late-term abortions, Northam was asked in a WTOP radio interview about abortions up to the point of delivery in instances when the mother’s life or health was at serious risk, which are permitted under current law.

Northam said that the procedures 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.”

His office later clarified that he was talking about prognosis and medical treatment, not ending the life of a delivered baby.

His remarks triggered an uproar from politicians across the political spectrum.

“I’ve only read about it, but yes, I was troubled,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said of Northam’s remarks. Collins is one of two Republican senators who favor abortion rights.

“He clearly misspoke,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said. “I mean, Democrats are not for infanticide.”

Other Democrats dodged questions about Northam’s remarks. “I’m not doing Virginia,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said when asked about them.

Northam has also faced widespread calls to resign over a racist photo in his medical school yearbook. At the same time, other top Virginia Democrats have faced criticism over their pasts.

Asked if she was troubled by Northam’s comments, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who recently launched a campaign for president, told a reporter to set up an interview to discuss it, and an aide provided a business card.

In response to a follow-up inquiry, the aide pointed to a comment Gillibrand had previously made stating that there is “zero place for politicians to be involved in these very complicated medical decisions” and “any bill restricting access to medical care and safe abortion services is an attack on women’s rights.”

The New York measure, signed into law by the governor last month, loosens the rules on late-term abortions. It includes a section that allows abortions after 24 weeks when the “life or health” of the mother is threatened. The previous law barred the procedure unless the “life” of the mother was in jeopardy. The new measure also decriminalized abortions, moving the regulations from the criminal code to the health code.

Late-term abortions are generally considered those performed during or after the 21st to 24th week of gestation, although there is no precise medical or legal definition. That gestational period, which is late in the second trimester, roughly corresponds to the point at which a fetus might be able to survive outside the womb. A pregnancy is considered “full term” at 37 weeks.

A Gallup poll conducted in May 2018 showed that 60 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in the first trimester. Support fell to 13 percent when participants were asked about terminations in the third trimester.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1.3 percent of abortions were performed at or later than 21 weeks of gestation in 2015. The CDC said 91.1 percent were performed at or before 13 weeks and 7.6 percent at 14 to 20 weeks.

Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, emphasizes the concept of fetal viability, giving states the right to restrict abortions after that point as long as there are exceptions to protect a woman’s life or health.

“Every life is sacred, and every soul is a precious gift from heaven,” Trump said Thursday in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast that were among the strongest of his presidency on abortion.

The president also recounted the story of a Virginia couple whose year-old son was born prematurely, at 24 weeks. The boy, Grayson Watkinson, survived birth in the family car during a snowstorm, Trump said.

“He was born four months premature and weighed only 1 pound and 11 ounces. But he let out little, tiny cries, and he made it to the hospital alive,” said Trump.