Yesterday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist, was being interviewed about controversial failed legislation referred to as the “Repeal Act” that would lift restrictions on late-term abortions in the state.

In a contentious moment, the bill’s sponsor, Democrat delegate Kathy Tran, testified that the legislation would allow for third trimester abortions when a mother “has physical signs that she’s about to give birth,” even if she has already begun dilating.

Though, advocates for the bill suggest that these late-term abortions would only happen in incidents when the mother’s life is in danger or the baby is facing severe health issues, as David French has pointed out, the wording of the bill is more ambiguous. The bill says that the late term abortion can occur if a single physician determines that “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the women or impair the mental or physical health of the woman.” Critics worry that the mental health aspect of the law opens it up for doctors to perform the late term abortions (even if a woman is already in labor) even if the mother or child’s life isn’t in immediate danger.  

In a radio interview yesterday, Gov. Northam was ask about the bill, and he suggested that it applied in cases “where there maybe severe deformities, there may be a fetus that’s non-viable. So in this particular example, if a mother is in labor, I could 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 mother, so I think this was really blown out of proportion.”

You can see the clip here. The relevant conversation begins around 38:50.

Many pro-life advocates interpreted the comments as suggesting that a mother and a physician would be able to decide to kill a live, viable infant.

 

Some, like Brookings Fellow in National Security Law Susan Hennessey, suggested Northam “is discussing a situation in which an infant is born but unable to survive and parents and physicians together decide whether to continue or remove life-preserving efforts.”

A statement released by Northam’s spokesperson Ofirah Yheskel said anti-abortion advocates were mischaracterizing Northam’s statement, but for a different reason than what Hennessey said. The statement says he was discussing situations “such as a nonviable pregnancy or in the event of severe fetal abnormalities.”

It 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.”

The legal ambiguity around phrases like “severe fetal abnormalities” are what pro-life critics say could lead to “post-birth abortions.”  It’s also not totally clear what “a discussion … between the physicians and mother” would entail in the context of a discussion about extremely late-term abortions and a live birth.

In the end, like a growing number of issues in this country, what you take away from Northam’s exchange largely depends on what you bring into it. The language of the bill leaves enough wiggle room for people on both sides of the abortion debate to interpret it and Northam’s statements about it charitably or uncharitably. Most of the bill’s proponents say late-term abortion would only be a worst case scenario resort for women in extreme medical duress. Critics of Virginia’s looming bill say that the door is left open for late-term abortions even if the mother’s life is not in danger by the ambiguity of the bill and Northam’s statements.

In a 2008 interview with RELEVANT, then-candidate Barack Obama explicitly said that in his view, late-term abortion was only permissible in medical emergencies. “Now, I don’t think that ‘mental distress’ qualifies as the health of the mother,” Obama said. “I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term.”

Whether or not Northam agrees with Obama’s 2008 opinion is up for debate.