Editor's note: We've republished this piece in light of President Donald Trump's comments about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam at his State of the Union address. Go here to read about Trump's remarks.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is facing backlash after expressing support for women's right to terminate their pregnancies in the third trimester if medically necessary.
The HB2491 bill, introduced by state Delegate Kathy Tran, would eliminate a rule that requires women seeking to have a third trimester abortion to have at least three physicians confirm the procedure "is necessary to prevent the woman's death or impairment of her mental or physical health," instead making it so pregnant people only need approval from one doctor. The measure also erases the need "to find that any such impairment to the woman's health would be substantial and irremediable."
The legislation has not moved forward in the state Legislature and Northam said he disagrees with only having one physician's confirmation. "I think it’s always good to get a second opinion, for at least two providers to be involved in that decision,” he said. "Because these decisions shouldn’t be taken lightly, and so I would certainly support more than one provider."
But as a pro-choice Democrat, Northam said he supports women's right to choose because "we want the government not to be involved in these types of decisions. We want the decision to be made by the mothers and their providers." The first-term governor is also a pediatric surgeon and said most pregnancies terminated at a later stage happen "with the consent of obviously the mother, with the consent of the physicians — more than one physician, by the way — and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s non-viable."
Only 1.3% of all abortions nationwide take place after 20 weeks of gestation, according to a 2009 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Northam is right: The reasons women might seek abortion care at a later date are very complex. Dr. Beverly Gray, an assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Duke University, has previously told Refinery29 medical complications are often the reason why pregnancies are terminated after 20 weeks of gestation.
"Many of these women are faced with pregnancies complicated by severe birth defects that can only be diagnosed at this stage of pregnancy. Other women are diagnosed with medical complications, such as cancer, where pregnancy can put their life at risk," she said. "Many teenagers don’t realize they are pregnant until the second trimester and often seek care later, especially if they are hesitant to disclose the news to their family. Because abortion after 20 weeks is more rare, there are fewer ob-gyn’s who provide this care, making it logistically difficult to find a doctor, which can also create delays."
While explaining the HB2491 measure, Northam also explained from a medical perspective what it is like for women with nonviable pregnancies to go into labor. "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 desire, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother," he said.
Anti-choice advocates jumped on those comments, arguing that Northam supported "abortion on demand" and "legal infanticide." Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted: "Never thought I would see the day America had government officials who openly support legal infanticide." Meghan McCain falsely claimed that "[The U.S. is] one of only seven nations in the world, along with North Korea and China, to allow abortion on demand after 20 weeks." In fact, 65 countries allow abortions to take place after 20 weeks of gestations in cases where there are fetal malformations or anomalies present. And terminating a pregnancy at that stage is not only rare, but also a long and expensive process in the U.S.: A woman who terminated a nonviable pregnancy at 32 weeks told Jezebel the four-day procedure cost her $25,000 out-of-pocket and she wasn't sure if she would receive any reimbursements from her health insurance.
While anti-abortion proponents such as President Donald Trump like to claim "you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day," physicians have often said this is a lie.
In a statement Wednesday, Northam's office said anti-choice lawmakers had taken his comments out of context. "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," Northam's spokesperson Ofirah Yheskel said in a statement. "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."