A video clip of a first-term Virginia lawmaker saying she would allow abortions up until the moment of birth consumed the state Capitol on Wednesday after going viral in conservative media, and it later drew criticism from President Donald Trump.
Republicans said Democrats had essentially endorsed infanticide, and Democrats accused Republicans of pulling an "insidious" election year stunt.
What began as a social media firestorm spilled over onto the floor of the House of Delegates, where Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, gave a rare speech in which he vowed to defend "precious human life" as long as Republicans are in power. In response, House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, accused Republicans of springing an "orchestrated ambush" on a fellow delegate and stirring up an online mob with misleading rhetoric.
In a radio appearance, Gov. Ralph Northam attempted to calm things down by saying the episode had been "blown out of proportion." But he stirred the controversy again by suggesting in the same radio interview that a woman and her doctor could have a "discussion" about what to do with a non-viable or deformed infant who survived birth.
The governor's remarks also rocketed around social media, with critics such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., saying Northam, a pediatric neurologist, had voiced support for infanticide. Northam's office said the governor was only referring to infants with "severe fatal abnormalities" and that his words were being taken out of context "in bad faith."
Republicans insisted there was nothing misleading about videos of Democrats talking about the limits of abortion in their own words.
"I think what my Democratic colleagues are most concerned about is what this moment actually revealed," said House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. "It was a moment of unbridled honesty about their agenda."
The dust-up began Tuesday afternoon after the House GOP caucus Twitter account shared a video showing Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, speaking before a House subcommittee about legislation she filed that would have lifted a variety of state-level abortion restrictions. The most controversial element of the bill, which Republicans voted down shortly after the exchange in the video, touches on a raw nerve of the abortion debate: the rules surrounding abortions when a pregnancy has progressed far enough that a fetus may stand a chance of surviving, perhaps only briefly, outside the womb.
Heartbreaking... This isn't in New York, this isn't in California, this happened just this week right here in Virginia. @VAHouseDems proposed legislation to provide abortions up to just seconds before that precious child takes their first breath. Watch for yourself. pic.twitter.com/AxgPVyI6kU— VA House GOP (@vahousegop) January 29, 2019
Tran’s legislation would have loosened rules on the legality of third-term abortion, which Virginia law allows only if three doctors conclude a woman’s life or health is at a severe risk. Tran’s bill would have significantly lowered those standards, allowing third-trimester abortion on the advice of one doctor who would have to certify a pregnancy could “impair the mental or physical health of the woman.” Tran's bill would not have eliminated a requirement that life support be available and used if an aborted or miscarried fetus shows signs of viability.
Democrats and abortion-rights advocates argue that third-trimester abortions only occur in rare and difficult circumstances.
With a camera close by, Gilbert, the subcommittee chairman, questioned Tran about the third-trimester provisions, asking the Democrat if her legislation would let a woman ask for an abortion for mental health reasons as she was going into labor.
“Where it's obvious that a woman is about to give birth ... she has physical signs that she is about to give birth, would that still be a point at which she could request an abortion if she was so certified? If she's dilating?” Gilbert asked.
Tran responded: “Mr. Chairman, that would be a decision that the doctor, the physician and the woman would make at that point.”
“I understand that,” Gilbert said. “I'm asking if your bill allows that."
Tran said: “My bill would allow that, yes."
In a pivotal election year with control of the House at stake, conservatives set to work spreading the video, characterizing it as a ghoulish display of the types of abortion policies that could become law in Virginia without GOP majorities to block them.
“@VAHouseDems proposed legislation to provide abortions up to just seconds before that precious child takes their first breath. Watch for yourself,” read the post from the House Republicans’ Twitter account Tuesday afternoon.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the video had been viewed nearly 2.5 million times and had been shared by numerous conservative commentators and politicians, including former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who said the video “literally makes me sick to my stomach.”
Tran took down her own Twitter account after the criticism began, and other Democratic lawmakers whose names are attached to the bill have been caught up in the backlash.
Filler-Corn said the actions of the GOP leadership had led to ongoing harassment and intimidation against Democratic delegates and their families.
"I understand that in a few short weeks campaign season will be upon us. And the gloves will be off," Filler-Corn said. "But here, while we're legislating, while we're debating issues, while we're doing the work of the people ... what transpired yesterday was wrong. And it's really beneath this body and unacceptable."
When asked if Democrats would pursue legislation similar to Tran's if they take control of the House next year, Filler-Corn said that "there's a lot of support for this type of legislation."
Tran showed no signs of wavering. In a statement Wednesday morning, she said lawmakers should "trust women to make their own health care decisions."
"These decisions are personal and private, and they are made in consultation with doctors who are using their best medical judgment," said Tran, who was part of the wave of new Democratic delegates elected in 2017.
"I regret that these partisan games have taken the focus away from where it should be: on the Virginian women who have asked for this bill to get politicians out of their private medical decisions."
Tran and Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, who appeared next to Tran in the video, declined to comment further when approached on the House floor.
On Wednesday night, The Daily Caller reported that Trump reacted strongly to Tran's and Northam's remarks. He said he had watched the video of Tran's exchange with Gilbert but had not yet heard about what Northam said.
“I thought it was terrible,” the president said, referring to Tran’s statements. “Do you remember when I said Hillary Clinton was willing to rip the baby out of the womb? That’s what it is, that’s what they’re doing, it’s terrible.”
He said of Northam: “I’m surprised that he did that, I’ve met him a number of times."
Cox took the unusual step of descending from the speaker's dais to speak on the floor. He quoted the Bible, marveled at how the human eye develops in the womb, and shared the story of a young woman who might have been aborted due to an inaccurate Down syndrome screening but now works at the Capitol and is about to get married and go to law school.
Because Northam has signaled his support for Tran's bill, Cox said, Virginia is "one small step away" from having lenient abortion rules similar to the ones recently passed in New York.
"I will never stop fighting for the promise of life as long as I hold a gavel," Cox said.
Though Cox didn't reference Tran directly, other Republicans took a less measured tone. The Republican Party of Virginia sent out a fundraising appeal Wednesday morning tied to the abortion video and called on other Democrats to "take a stand against barbaric infanticide in Virginia."
Northam was asked to respond to Tran's comments during his monthly appearance on WTOP. Northam said third-trimester abortions require the consent of a doctor, and are "done in cases where there may 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," Northam said. "And then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother."
Northam also said he thinks late-term abortions should require approval from multiple doctors. Tran's bill would require only one doctor to sign off.
The governor's office released a statement Wednesday afternoon clarifying his remarks.
"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," said Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel. "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."
Though the comments from the governor and an inexperienced lawmaker could reappear later this year as Republicans try to hold their slim majority, Tran is not the first nor the only Democratic lawmaker to advocate for looser rules on late-term abortions.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who has served in the General Assembly since 2006, carried a similar bill this year.
When she presented her bill in a Senate committee earlier this month, McClellan argued that it’s misguided to believe that women would seek late-term abortions for frivolous reasons.
“You don't get to the third trimester and seek an abortion lightly. You don't get to the third trimester and wake up and say: 'I've changed my mind,’ ” McClellan said. “You seek an abortion because something has gone horribly wrong."
The Senate committee voted down McClellan's bill without extensive questioning.