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Republican Attacks on Abortion Don’t Send Democrats Running Scared Anymore

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In Virginia, 2019 dawned as the year the Democrats could take back the General Assembly for the first time in a generation. In 2015, a beaten-down party fielded only 56 candidates for the state’s 100-seat House of Delegates, letting the GOP win 66. Two years later, a fiery surge of activism in response to Donald Trump’s presidency led to 88 Democrats running. That November, they almost took the House, electing 15 pro-choice delegates, including 11 women. But in January, party leaders botched their messaging about an abortion-rights bill, and suddenly the state’s anti-Trump political momentum was in grave danger of being reversed.

Virginia, you’ll recall, is the state where Republicans tried to force women to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound in order to get an abortion (even though involuntary sexual penetration constitutes rape under federal law); that effort failed in 2012. The state has restrictive abortion laws, especially for later abortions, requiring three doctors to certify that the pregnancy would “likely” kill the woman or “substantially and irremediably” impair her physical or mental health. Virginia law forces women seeking a later abortion to leave the state, advocates say. There have been only two such procedures since 2000. In January, first-term Democrat Kathy Tran introduced legislation that would, among other things, reduce the number of doctors required from three to one and remove the words “substantially and irremediably” from the law. The bill had broad support from pro-choice groups.

But in a committee hearing where opponents aggressively misrepresented the bill, Tran slipped up and seemed to say the legislation might allow abortion up to the moment of birth. She quickly corrected herself, saying, “I should have said [that] infanticide is not allowed in Virginia.” Her bill failed to get out of committee. Days later, discussing the bill on a radio show, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam attempted to explain what would happen to a baby born with a fatal condition, saying, “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.” Like Tran, Northam immediately clarified his point. The “discussion” of care that he referred to would in no way include the option of killing the terminally ill newborn—which is and will remain illegal.

But it didn’t matter. Virginia Republicans, who lost ground in 2017 and had little hope for a better showing in 2019, now had a brand-new issue: “infanticide.” At the end of January, the Susan B. Anthony List, a national anti-abortion group, announced “a six-figure campaign” in Virginia to beat “abortion extremists” in the fall races. The story quickly went national. Trump famously claimed that Tran’s bill would mean doctors could “allow a newborn baby to come out into the world and wrap the baby and make the baby comfortable and then talk to the mother and talk to the father and then execute the baby. Execute the baby.” The weekend before the election, at a rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, the delusional president went further, claiming, “The governor of Virginia executed a baby…after birth!” Amazingly, barely any major news outlets covered Trump’s insane lie about Northam.

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