Law & Government

Virginia Governor Rekindles Heated Abortion Debate

A Southern officeholder gains little from pushing for a right to post-delivery abortion.


On February 2, Gov. Ralph Northam (D–Va.) held a now-infamous press conference at which he admitted to having once "darkened" his face with shoe polish while dressing up as Michael Jackson. For his sins, he faced calls to resign from a range of erstwhile allies, including Hillary Clinton, Planned Parenthood, and the Virginia state House Democratic Caucus. (He has so far declined.)

Two days earlier, many of the same state House Democrats had stood proudly behind Northam, vigorously applauding, during another press conference at which he defended himself. The difference was that the first controversy was over his views on abortion—specifically his support for a bill to legalize the procedure in Virginia through the end of the third trimester.

For many people, that policy is morally indistinguishable from infanticide: If it's OK to kill a fetus 12 hours before birth, why is it wrong to kill a baby five minutes after? Northam did no favors to his cause when, during a late January radio interview, he answered a question about whether the proposed legislation would allow a woman already in labor to terminate her pregnancy. He said that in such a case "the infant would be delivered…and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother."

Was the governor of Virginia really suggesting that the abortion procedure could be completed after birth? Probably not. A fuller transcript shows that Northam, a medical doctor, was referring specifically to cases in which "there may be severe deformities [or] there may be a fetus that's not viable." When he said "a discussion would ensue," he likely meant a discussion about whether to prolong, through life support, the suffering of a baby with no chance of survival. Under current state law, that determination is indeed up to the mother and her physicians; the Virginia bill would not have changed that. Northam's comment was regrettably ambiguous, but a Southern officeholder gains little from pushing for a right to post-delivery abortion.

The concerns of the pro-life activists who rushed to castigate him were not entirely baseless, however. A New York law, passed just a few days before, repealed a statutory protection for infants—including healthy ones—accidentally born during abortion attempts. Put otherwise, that state now permits viable but unwanted children to be left to die after birth. In addition, both the New York law and the now-tabled Virginia bill effectively allow abortion up until the moment of delivery even in cases where the fetus is healthy and the mother faces no serious health complication. The overwhelming majority of Americans oppose legalization in such cases, according to polls.