Failed legislation loosening restrictions on late-term abortions, which are already legal in some cases in Virginia, ignites furor

By: - January 30, 2019 6:35 pm

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, looks on during the House floor session on Wednesday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A partisan debate fueled by election-year ferocity reared up in Virginia’s House of Delegates on Wednesday over legislation related to late-term abortions when a mother’s life or health is in danger — a practice that is already legal in Virginia under certain circumstances.

A video of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, responding to a line of questioning from Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, during a subcommittee hearing on Monday has gone viral on social media and was picked up by some conservative media outlets, including Breitbart and the National Review, which claimed, “Virginia Bill Would Legalize Abortions Up to Birth.”

The furor grew so intense that on Wednesday afternoon Tran was accompanied by security detail because she’s received “some intense, intense feedback,” she said.

Joseph Macenka, a Capitol Police spokesman, said officers “respond any time a member of the General Assembly expresses safety concerns, as is the case with Delegate Tran.”

Macenka wouldn’t comment on any specific threats.

“We won’t get into that other than to say abortion is a very emotional issue,” he said.

In the video, Tran acknowledges that her bill, which was killed on a 5-3 vote, would allow a woman to receive an abortion even up to the point when she is about to give birth. The Virginia House GOP tweeted that the legislation would “provide abortions up to just seconds before that precious child takes their first breath.”

Virginia state code already allows third-trimester abortions in certain instances.

Right now, a doctor can terminate a pregnancy after the second trimester if three doctors certify that “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”

State code also requires that there be life support for the “product” of the abortion in case “there is clearly visible evidence of viability.”

Those provisions have survived despite Republicans being the most recent party to hold both the governor’s office and a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly.

Tran’s bill sought to change the requirement that a woman receive certification from three doctors to just one and removes the “substantially and irremediably” language from the state code.

When a woman is on the brink of labor, the pregnancy would not be aborted, she would simply be allowed to deliver, said Dr. Sara Imershein, an OB/GYN in Falls Church who sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice American Foundation.

“I don’t know of any situation like that, where there’s a viable pregnancy and a woman’s in labor and asking for her pregnancy to be stopped at that point,” she said. “At that point, she would just be allowed to deliver.”

She pointed out that 91 percent of abortions occur at 12 weeks or earlier, and most of the remaining nine percent occur in the second trimester.

Before the line of questioning from Gilbert began, Tran had expanded on her legislation and explained why she wanted to remove the requirement that a woman get certification from three doctors, though that explanation did not make it into the viral clip.

“At this point in the pregnancy, the majority of these women are — they desire this pregnancy, they’re looking forward to completing it, but there’s usually a medical condition that has arisen for the women or for the pregnancy itself,” she told the committee. “So this is a conversation that she would have with her doctor about this. We don’t believe that additional doctors are required to say that this would be necessary.”

Virginia has seen legislation in the past — most recently in 2017 — that would outlaw abortions after 20 weeks, except in cases when the mother’s life is at risk, but it failed to make it to the floor.

But the fact that third-trimester abortions are already legal in Virginia if the mother’s life is in danger didn’t stop delegates from taking to the floor of House Wednesday to emotionally declare their positions on the debate.

Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said the number of abortions that have taken place since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision (more than 61 million, he claimed) keeps him up at night.

Del. Scott Garrett, R-Lynchburg, who is also a physician, teared up as he talked about the seemingly minuscule medical complications that could have made abortion feasible before his son was born, adding, “I’m not going to let anyone take the life of my son.”

But Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said the Republicans have led an “orchestrated ambush,” and have been deliberately mischaracterizing the legislation on social media, as well as what the current law in Virginia is.

“What was the result? Ongoing harassment, intimidation against the patron, several members of this body, their families and their children,” she said.

Kathryn Gilley, a spokeswoman for Virginia House Democrats, said Tran wasn’t prepared “to respond to the mischaracterizations of her bill,” during the subcommittee meeting. Rather, Tran was only prepared to talk about what her legislation would actually do.

“But they haven’t turned it into that, they turned it into this partisan attack,” Gilley said. “It’s basically a campaign tactic that they are pulling in the middle of the GA session.”

Gilbert spoke during the House floor session on Wednesday and called Tran’s comments during the subcommittee, “a moment of unbridled honesty,” about the Democratic agenda.

“What this bill did was remove any meaningful limitations on the right to an abortion up until the moment of birth,” he said.

“It’s not just the legislation, it’s the idea of how they view human life,” said John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist, was also pulled into the maelstrom, with prominent conservative politicians blasting comments he made in WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” segment.

“It’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities, there may be a fetus that’s nonviable,” Northam said. “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.”

Northam added that Tran’s bill was “really blown out of proportion” and added that he thought multiple doctors should be consulted instead of just one.

“We want the government not be to involved in these types of decisions,” he said. “We want the decision to be made by the mothers and their providers.”

Northam’s spokeswoman, Ofirah Yheskel, told The Washington Post that Republicans were twisting his words.

“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,” she said.

Ned Oliver contributed. 

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Katie O'Connor
Katie O'Connor

Katie, a Manassas native, has covered health care, commercial real estate, law, agriculture and tourism for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond BizSense and the Northern Virginia Daily. Last year, she was named an Association of Health Care Journalists Regional Health Journalism Fellow, a program to aid journalists in making national health stories local and using data in their reporting. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary, where she was executive editor of The Flat Hat, the college paper, and editor-in-chief of The Gallery, the college’s literary magazine.