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Virginia governor under fire for comments on late-term abortion bill

A new bill proposed in the Virginia legislature would loosen restrictions on abortions during the third trimester of pregnancy, and allow abortions during the second trimester to take place outside hospitals. Virginia's governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, stirred controversy on Wednesday when he suggested how such a late-term procedure could occur. 

Under current Virginia law, abortions during the third trimester require a determination by a doctor and two consulting physicians that continuing the pregnancy would likely result in the woman's death or "substantially and irremediably" impair her mental or physical health.

The bill, proposed in the Virginia House of Delegates by Democrat Kathy Tran, would require only one doctor to make the determination that the pregnancy threatens the woman's life or health. The proposed legislation would also eliminate the requirement that abortions during the second trimester be performed in a state-licensed hospital. 

Republicans narrowly control the House of Delegates, so the bill is unlikely to pass anytime soon. A subcommittee voted to table the bill in a 5-3 vote Monday.

Proponents of the Virginia legislation argue the bill, which is similar to a law recently passed in New York, is needed to protect women's health. But opponents argue late-term abortions are rarely medically necessary, and the Virginia bill has provoked a swift backlash from conservatives. But that response was compounded by comments Northam made on WTOP radio Wednesday when asked about the bill. 

"When we talk about third-trimester abortions, these are done with the consent of obviously the mother, with the consent of the physicians, more than one physician, by the way," Northam said. "And it's done in cases where there amy be severe deformities, there may be a fetus that's non-viable. So in this particular example, if a mother is 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. So I think this was really blown out of proportion."

That prompted swift backlash from Republicans and conservatives.

In an interview with The Daily Caller, President Trump said that Northam's comments were "terrible."

"This is going to lift up the whole pro-life movement like maybe it's never been lifted up before. The pro-life movement is very much a 50-50, it's a very 50-50 issue, actually it's gained a point or two over the years," Mr. Trump said.

"This is horrific," Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted. "Dem Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatrician himself, is defending born-alive abortions: '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.'"

"This is simply pure evil," conservative commentator Ben Shapiro tweeted. 

Ofirah Yheskel, Northam's communications director, issued a statement looking to clarify the governor's comments. 

"Republicans in Virginia and across the country are trying to play politics with women's health, and that is exactly why these decisions belong between a woman and her physician, not legislators, most of whom are men," the statement reads. "No woman seeks a third trimester abortion except in the case of tragic or difficult circumstances, such as a nonviable pregnancy or in the event of severe fetal abnormalities, and the governor's comments were limited to the actions physicians would take in the event that a woman in those circumstances went into labor."

Yheskel added: "Attempts to extrapolate these comments otherwise is in bad faith and underscores exactly why the governor believes physicians and women, not legislators, should make these difficult and deeply personal medical decisions."

Northam himself later commented on the outcry, tweeting late Wednesday, "I have devoted my life to caring for children and any insinuation otherwise is shameful and disgusting."

Virginia law currently prohibits third trimester abortions, except in the extreme circumstances in which a woman's life or health is at risk and that risk is certified by three physicians. A majority of Americans (60 percent) believe abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, but that number plummets to just 13 percent for abortions during the third trimester, according to a Gallup poll from May 2018

At a recent committee hearing, Republican state delegate Todd Gilbert asked Tran to clarify exactly how late in a pregnancy doctors would be able to perform abortions. Gilbert asked if a woman who was about to give birth could request an abortion under Tran's proposed bill.

"She has physical signs that she is about to give birth. Would that be a point at which she could still request an abortion if she is so certified? She's dilating," Gilbert said. 

"Mr. Chairman, that would be a, you know, a decision that the doctor, the physician and the woman would make at this point," Tran responded.

"I understand that. I'm asking if your bill allows that," Gilbert posed.

"My bill would allow that, yes," she said.

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