If President Trump wins re-election in 2020, he may be able to thank a first-term state legislator from Virginia and a folksy, mild-mannered pediatric neurologist.
The political turmoil stirred up over a bill by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax County, that would loosen the state’s regulation on late-term abortions — and the subsequent comments by Gov. Ralph Northam — will not go away quickly. The blackface scandal will be limited to those who did such an abhorrent thing. The sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax are his own. The late-term abortion controversy will touch every state legislative race this fall.
We will advise you now that, no matter what your views on abortion, this editorial will not change them. That’s not the point. Rather, the point is to assess the political fallout. Here’s why it will benefit Republicans in general and Trump in particular.
Some necessary background: Tran’s bill would have changed Virginia’s rules on third-trimester abortions. Currently, three doctors must certify that continuing the pregnancy will cause the woman to die or “substantially and irremediably impair” her mental or physical health. Tran’s bill would have reduced that to one doctor and removed the “substantially and irremediably” clause. Tran and fellow Democrats saw this as a way to allow abortions in cases where the woman’s health is threatened, though perhaps not permanently. Republicans saw it quite differently.
Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, patiently walked Tran through a hypothetical situation, and into a political trap.
Gilbert: “How late in the third trimester could a physician perform an abortion if he indicated it would impair the mental health of the woman?”
Tran: “Through the third trimester. The third trimester goes all the way up to 40 weeks.”
Gilbert: “Where it’s obvious that a woman is about to give birth would that still be a point at which she could request an abortion if she was so certified? She’s dilating.”
Tran: “My bill would allow that.”
Republicans were quick to portray this as a Democratic attempt to allow abortions, for any reason, up until the moment of birth. If “substantially and irremediably” is not the standard, then couldn’t a woman simply change her mind at the last minute?
Northam then complicated things — or, in the eyes of some, clarified them — with his answer to a question about late-term abortions. “It’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities, or a fetus that is 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, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”
Northam didn’t go into what would happen next, but Republicans were quick to jump to their conclusion: The governor just advocated infanticide. That’s not exactly what the governor said, but this isn’t really an argument over facts.
Here are some relevant facts: Third-trimester abortions are exceedingly rare. How rare? The Virginia Department of Health reports only two since 2000 — one in 2001 and one in 2004. Although we have no details on those two cases, the odds are those resulted from something going horribly wrong.
As we said, this isn’t really an argument over facts. It’s over perceptions, and that’s why Republicans are the big winners in all this. There are a lot of people who are opposed to abortion, period — that government should be protecting life from the moment of conception. There are also a lot of people who believe just as strongly that government has no business at all here, that these are decisions that should be entirely up to the woman. And then there are those who find the whole subject squeamish. They might generally take a libertarian view but would rather not think about the details. This controversy gives the anti-abortion side the opportunity to force people to think about those details, and in the most extreme way possible. It doesn’t matter how rare third-trimester abortions are, or under what tragic circumstances impel them. Tran (and Northam) have handed Republicans the chance to warn that Democrats stand for “abortion on demand” right up until the moment of birth. Or, perhaps, even after.
This is not helpful to Democrats, to put it mildly. There are lots of voters who are generally inclined to allow abortions but not necessarily under every circumstance. If the question is whether abortion should be banned outright, Democrats have the advantage. If the question is whether to allow “abortion on demand” when a woman is in labor, Republicans have the advantage. Thanks to Tran and Northam, this is now where the debate has been tilted.
Virginia has been trending Democratic. Republicans cling to precarious margins in the General Assembly (51-49 in the House, 21-19 in the Senate). All those seats are up for re-election this fall. If recent trends continue, Democrats will win majorities in both chambers. Ten of those 51 House Republicans hold seats that voted Democratic last year; seven of those 21 Senate Republicans hold seats that went Democratic. A controversy like this gives Republicans a chance to break those trends, even if there were no other scandals engulfing Virginia Democrats. This will energize the anti-abortion portion of the Republican base that might otherwise have been lethargic about an off-year election. And every Republican candidate in the state will now be hammering Democrats about whether they are “abortion radicals” — and have gruesome details to help make their case. There’s only so much bandwidth, so this means there’ll be less room for discussion of any other issues, such as how we pay for Interstate 81 or fix up old school buildings that are falling apart.
This controversy helps Trump nationally, too. There are lots of Republicans who weren’t keen on him in 2016 but voted for him because they wanted conservative judges appointed, and some of those votes were cast specifically because they hope someday the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Trump has done a lot to drive away even some Republicans but something like this keeps those voters in the Republican fold, no matter what outrageous things he says or does. That’s why, politically speaking, this controversy is a gift for Republicans, not just in Virginia but across the country. It will stay long after the blackface is washed away.