The executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, John Findlay, crashed a press conference held by Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted he never thought he “would see the day America had government officials who openly support legal infanticide.”

President Donald Trump weighed in from the Oval Office. “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.”

A headline from The Federalist, capturing the zeitgeist of coverage that’s dominated conservative media outlets, reported “Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam Just Called For Legalizing Murder of Newborn Babies.”

But it’s easy to toss bombs from a distance. Is that really what Republican leaders in the Capitol, who lit the match that set off the firestorm, believe Northam, a pediatrician, was saying when he offered a clumsy explanation Wednesday of how a nonviable or severely deformed fetus might be handled at the end of a pregnancy?

Yes, said Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, who has known Northam for years and stood with him last month ringing bells for the Salvation Army in front of a Sam’s Club.

“Words have meaning,” he said during a Thursday morning press conference. “You saw the tape. I mean, he was very clear in what he said and I think that was very disturbing.

‘My bill would allow that’

Thursday was day three of a maelstrom debate that began when Republicans shared a video of Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, defending a bill that would reduce the number of doctors required to approve a late-term abortion from three to one, among a host of other provisions easing abortion restrictions.

The reaction had less to do with the content of the bill — it’s been filed before with no controversy — and everything to do with Tran’s response to an extreme hypothetical presented by House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, who asked her if it would allow an abortion while a woman was in labor.

She first explained the decision would be made by the woman and doctor. Pressed again by Gilbert, she said: “My bill would allow that, yes.”

Tran said in a statement she was caught off guard by the tenor of the questions because the legislation had been presented before. “I wish I was quicker on my feet and I regrettably misspoke,” she said.

Northam was drawn in Wednesday morning when he was asked about the controversy during a radio appearance. He said he thinks at least two doctors should approve a late-term abortion. But first, he drew on his medical background to describe what might transpire in cases in which a fetus has severe deformities or is otherwise non-viable.

“The infant would be delivered,” he said. “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.”

Video of the exchange has been viewed more than four million times on Twitter and the story has rocketed around conservative media, including a segment on Fox & Friends on Thursday morning with Gilbert under the chyron “VA PROPOSES LAW ALLOWING ABORTION AT 40 WEEKS.”

Republican House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert appeared on Fox and Friends on Thursday morning.

Republicans eager for election-year debate

Cox and his colleagues in the House are seizing on the comments as a winning issue in an election year where they’re defending a one-seat majority. While Northam and Tran say their remarks are being willfully misinterpreted, Cox and other Republicans are framing them as rare moments of honesty that shows what Democrats will do if they win control of the House later this year.

“I mean, the comments from Del. Tran, it’s basically an abortion almost to the time of birth,” Cox said. “I think that’s what the agenda is. I think the true agenda came out this year a little bit early for them, and that’s a good thing, because we need to have this debate.”

Pressed once again as to whether Republicans “sincerely” believe Northam is in favor of infanticide, House leaders doubled down. “The fact that any physician, any Godfearing human being, would do anything other than try to breath life into that child is abhorrent to many of us,” Gilbert said.

A reporter cut in: “But do you think Gov. Northam would watch a baby die? Is that what you’re saying?”

“The speaker has answered your question,” Gilbert said.

‘Desperation can be ugly’

At his own press conference later in the day, Northam stood with Attorney General Mark Herring and House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn. He said he doesn’t regret his comments and that if Republicans want to make this an election year fight, Democrats will win.

“The new political strategy of the Republican Party is to score points any way they can,” he said. “There is a stark choice, and Virginians time and again have chosen to support women and their reproductive health. These tactics from Virginia Republicans will not change that.”

Filler-Corn invoked Republicans’ much-lampooned transvaginal ultrasound legislation from 2012 and a proposal to require women who suffer miscarriages to report it to police. “These are just some of the legislative proposals that we’ve seen in the General Assembly over the last decade,” she said.

The strongest words came from Herring, who has already announced he intends to run for governor.

“Desperation can be ugly,” he said. “And what we’ve seen from Republicans over the last few days has been desperate, and it has been ugly.”

He said Cox “has taken his caucus completely off the deep end, accusing Gov. Northam of infanticide, which would be laughable if it wasn’t such a grotesque and abhorrent claim. He has dedicated his entire life to the welfare of children.”

Gov. Ralph Northam, backed by Democratic members of the House of Delegates and Attorney General Mark Herring, held a press conference Thursday to respond after Republicans accused him of advocating for infanticide. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Actual policy governing late-term abortions is lost in furor

The nuance of the underlying policy debate has been almost wholly lost amid the outrage over the graphic descriptions of a hypothetical woman seeking an abortion moments before birth — a scenario physicians say is totally detached from reality.

Abortions at any point during the third-trimester are rare, and the Virginia Department of Health says there have been no confirmed late-term abortions in in Virginia in the past three years, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Under current law, women are allowed to seek abortions after the second trimester only if three physicians conclude “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental of physical health of the woman.”

Tran’s legislation reduces the number of physicians required to approve the procedure to one and eliminates the words “substantially and irremediably.”

Pro-choice advocates say the restrictions are politically motivated and women’s doctors should be permitted to perform abortions for any valid medical reason. Likewise, they say the requirement that three doctors sign off an abortion is medically unnecessary government interference in women’s healthcare decisions.

Republicans said removing the language “substantially and irremediably” would “allow for many procedures that would meet the new, lower, meaningless standard.”

Cox and Gilbert both refused to say whether they support the current laws governing third-trimester abortions or believe they should be tightened.

Northam, meanwhile, declined to opine again Thursday on whether he supports the bill, saying it’s already been tabled for the year.

“I think all of us would agree that we are always willing to look at legislation, make improvements, have a discussion … but these comments that have been made, these questions have been asked have been nothing more than political points.”