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Abortion quickly becomes key issue in Virginia politics

February 1, 2019
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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam prepares to address a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Northam made a statement and answered questions about the late term abortion bill that was killed in committee. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A pitched debate about late-term abortions in Virginia erupted into all-out political warfare Thursday as Republicans — including President Donald Trump — sought to capitalize on Democratic missteps.

Republicans accused Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, a folksy pediatric neurologist who is personal friends with many GOP lawmakers, of backing infanticide. Republicans said recent statements by Northam and other Democrats have laid bare their support for on-demand abortions at any point of a pregnancy, including up to the moments before birth — or even after.

GOP lawmakers held a news conference to warn voters about what would happen if Democrats took control of the General Assembly.

“We need to take these words seriously. We need to understand that this is what is yet to come folks, and we need to make sure that we do everything to stop it,” Republican Del. Kathy Byron said.

Her comments came after Trump said in an interview that the controversy in Virginia could be a boost to the pro-life movement and tweeted early Thursday that “Democrats are becoming the Party of late term abortion, high taxes, Open Borders and Crime!”

Democrats countered that Republicans are panicked by their dim political prospects and willing to do anything to keep control of the legislature. Virginia is one of only a handful of states holding legislative elections this year, and the only one where Democrats have a strong chance of flipping control at the Capitol.

“Desperation can be ugly. And what we’ve seen from Republicans over the last few days has been desperate and it has been ugly,” Attorney General Mark Herring said.

At issue is legislation sponsored by Del. Kathy Tran that would reduce the number of doctors needed to certify late-term abortions from three to one.

The measure also would delete the requirement that doctors determine that continuing a pregnancy would “substantially and irremediably” impair a woman’s health. Instead, doctors would have to certify only that the woman’s health was impaired.

Recent video of Tran saying the bill would allow abortions up until moments before birth has been viewed millions of times.

Opponents said the bill is designed to remove any meaningful limitations on late-stage abortions. Supporters say the legislation, which has already failed, would ease the bureaucratic burden for a small number of families facing severe medical issues that may require an abortion late in a pregnancy.

The governor defended the legislation in a radio interview Wednesday and noted that late-term abortions are usually done because the infant is severely deformed or unable to survive after birth. Northam said that if a woman were to desire an abortion as she’s going into labor, the baby would be “resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue” between doctors and the mother, leaving open what would happen next.

Republicans said Northam’s statements made his views clear.

“I don’t think you can parse it. He was discussing how and whether to allow this child to die after it was alive,” Republican Del. Todd Gilbert said.

Northam denies advocating for infanticide and said he was trying to answer a question from a medical perspective. He has no regrets about what he said or how he said it.

“We believe legislators, most of whom are men, should not be making decisions about women’s choices for their reproductive health. My Republican friends believe something different,” Northam said at a news conference.

Democrats made a show of party unity Thursday, with several lawmakers standing behind Northam has he spoke at a news conference. But one Democrat, Del. Dawn Adams, publicly apologized for supporting the bill and said Del. Kathy Tran “didn’t have the backup” needed when presenting the legislation.

Old Dominion politics has undergone a massive change in recent years. House Democrats used to be a small and largely irrelevant minority until 2017, when an anti-Trump wave helped them almost take control of the chamber. The caucus still lacks the experience and infrastructure House Republicans have long enjoyed.

State Republicans are still trying to find a way to win back suburban voters who have fled the party in the Trump era. Before Virginia’s debate over late-term abortions gained national attention, state Republicans had largely tried to avoid hot-button social issues this year. Instead, they focused on kitchen table issues like curbing teen smoking and improving school safety.

Republicans made clear Thursday, however, that abortion would be front and center during the 2019 campaign season.

“I will keep fighting to protect the unborn. I don’t think there’s a more important issue we face up here,” House Speaker Kirk Cox said.

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