Here Are the Facts Behind an Abortion Controversy Engulfing Virginia Democrats

Virginia governor Ralph Northam. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Google Virginia delegate Kathy Tran, and you might think she’s a monster. Right-wing websites dominate the results, and they all riff on a common theme: The freshman Democratic lawmaker is down with infanticide, and so is the state’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam. “WATCH: VA Democrats Propose Bill Allowing Abortion Up Until Moment Of Birth,” shouts one representative headline from the Daily Wire.

Did Tran Actually Propose Infanticide?

Tran did introduce a bill that would have loosened several restrictions on access to late-term abortion. And in a clip circulated by the Virginia GOP, Tran does appear to suggest that the bill would permit abortions up until the point of birth. “My bill would allow that, yes,” she said in response to House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, a Republican. Gilbert had asked the lawmaker if her bill would allow a woman who’d received medical approval for a late-term abortion to undergo the procedure as she’s dilating. Tran’s misstep has fueled right-wing outrage for two days now. On Wednesday, Northam waded into the fray. “I wasn’t there … and I certainly can’t speak for Delegate Tran, but … first thing I would say is: This is why decisions such as this should be made by providers — physicians and the mothers and fathers that are involved,” he said, in response to a question from press. Northam, who is a physician, went on to note that third-term abortions are performed for medical reasons or because a fetus isn’t viable. But as the Washington Post reported earlier on Wednesday, Republicans condemned the governor for his remarks anyway.

What Would the Bill Change?

Tran’s bill wasn’t as salacious as its detractors insist. It would have reduced the number of doctors required to sign off on a third-term abortion from three to one, and it would have allowed that physician to approve a late-term abortion for any medical reason, including harm to a woman’s mental health. This provision would have altered the state’s existing statute, which currently allows a team of three physicians to approve third-term abortions for women whose health would be “substantially and irredeemably” harmed by continuing their pregnancies. The bill would have also allowed second-term abortions to be performed outside licensed hospitals, in facilities like clinics. A House subcommittee rejected the bill, but if it had become law it would not have licensed Virginia physicians to perform abortions as a fetus enters the birth canal. Tran’s bill resembles New York’s Reproductive Health Act in that it expands access to later-term abortions, but partial-birth abortion, or “born-alive abortion,” as GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel called it in a tweet, is already illegal. RHA didn’t legalize it, and neither would Tran’s bill.

Why Is This Even Controversial?

Tran has wandered into a familiar fever swamp. The idea that abortion providers tear apart full-term, viable babies about to breathe has animated the right for a long time. It’s the stuff of pulp fiction, and the myth bears little resemblance to reality. In the U.S., most abortions are performed early in the first trimester. Second-term are rare and third-term abortions are rarest of all, representing around one percent of all abortion performed in the U.S. Later abortions are usually performed because a woman’s health is at risk, or because of fetal nonviability. Nobody gets a third-term abortion for the hell of it. It’s an invasive, costly, and sometimes physically painful process, and women who need these procedures are usually in emotional distress over the loss of a wanted pregnancy. “I did not ever doubt I was doing the right thing for her but that did not make it easier,” one American woman told The Guardian of her late-term abortion. That’s the sort of woman Tran’s bill would help. Her plight, however, doesn’t seem to inspire quite as much outrage from the right.

The Facts Behind an Abortion Controversy Engulfing Virginia