In early 2019, Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam battled against widespread criticism and calls for him to resign his office. A scandal emerged on 1 February when the Virginian-Pilot newspaper published a photograph obtained from Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page, which showed one man in “blackface” and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam apologized but resisted calls for him to leave office.
By the time the yearbook scandal erupted, Northam had already become embroiled in controversy after comments he made about abortion during a live radio interview on Washington, D.C.’s, WTOP radio just two days earlier.
On 5 February, President Donald Trump himself attacked Northam’s abortion remarks during the State of the Union address, claiming the Virginia governor had “stated he would execute a baby after birth”:
In reality, Northam did not say he would “execute a baby after birth,” but the exact meaning of everything he did say was not entirely clear. The full video of the governor’s WTOP interview is available here, and a transcript of the most relevant section follows. Understanding the full context of his remarks is important to this issue.
In early January, Delegate Kathy Tran, a Democratic member of the Virginia Assembly, introduced House Bill 2491, which would have lessened legal restrictions on second- and third-trimester abortions. Of particular note, the measure would have reduced from three to one the number of doctors required to certify that a third-trimester abortion was necessary to prevent a pregnant woman from dying or experiencing physical or mental harm, and it would have eliminated an existing requirement that such harm be certified as “substantial and irremediable.”
During a 28 January Courts and Justice subcommittee hearing, Tran faced a series of questions from Republican subcommittee Chairman Todd Gilbert about the provisions of her bill and their potential implications. In one instance, Gilbert asked Tran whether her bill would, in theory, allow a doctor to certify that a woman’s mental health was at risk from continuing a pregnancy, even at the point where she was about to give birth, and whether House Bill 2491 would make it legally permissible to perform an abortion at that stage. Tran agreed that her bill would permit that.
The legislation was voted down in the committee and therefore was not passed by Virginia legislators, but video footage of the exchange between Tran and Gilbert prompted outrage among pro-life commentators and in national news news coverage:
What Northam said
That was the background for a question put to Northam two days later on WTOP radio, when WRC-TV’s Julie Carey asked him whether he supported Tran’s proposals. The following is a transcript of the relevant exchange, which can be watched in the video embedded below:
Julie Carey: … There was a very contentious committee hearing yesterday when Fairfax County Delegate Kathy Tran made her case for lifting restrictions on third-trimester abortions, as well as other restrictions now in place. And she was pressed by a Republican delegate about whether her bill would permit an abortion even as a woman is, essentially, dilating, ready to give birth. And she answered that it would permit an abortion at that stage of labor. Do you support her measure? And explain her answer.
Ralph Northam: You know, I wasn’t there, Julie, and I certainly can’t speak for Delegate Tran, but I would tell you — one, the first thing I would say is this is why decisions such as this should be made by [healthcare] providers, physicians, and the mothers and fathers that are involved. There are — you know when we talk about third-trimester abortions, these are done with the consent of, obviously, the mother, with the consent of the physicians, more than one physician by the way. And it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities, there may be a fetus that’s 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. So I think this was really blown out of proportion …
President Trump, in his State of the Union address, went even further in stripping away the nuance and context from what Northam said and described the comments even more provocatively by claiming: “He [Northam] stated he would execute a baby after birth.”
Northam certainly did not say that, but the exact meaning of his remarks was unclear. The governor invoked a “particular example,” but did not make it clear what the parameters of that example were.
Was Northam describing a hypothetical scenario under current Virginia law, or under what would be the legal milieu if Tran’s bill were passed? Did the example he used involve a fetus given a late diagnosis of disability or of a fatal condition, which meant the fetus was “non-viable” and could not survive even after being delivered alive? When Northam said the fetus would be “resuscitated if that’s what the mother and family desired,” was he saying he would, hypothetically, support a decision to allow the fetus to die by not providing life-extending medical intervention? What would be an acceptable outcome, in his view, to the “discussion” that would then take place between the woman and her physicians, and was Northam giving tacit support to a decision whereby a physician would withdraw life-extending care or take actions to intentionally end the life of the fetus?
We put this list of detailed questions to Northam’s office in order to clarify the exact meaning of his remarks to WTOP on 30 January but did not receive a response in time for publication. Vox quoted a spokesperson for Northam as saying that the governor’s comments were “absolutely not” a reference to infanticide but rather “focused on the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe abnormalities went into labor.” Also, according to NBC News, a spokesperson for Northam “disputed [President Trump’s] characterization” of his comments but did not provide any further clarifying details.
It’s clear that Northam did not “state he would execute a baby after birth,” as Trump claimed he did. However, his remarks did lack precision and clarity of meaning to the extent that they raised reasonable questions about what exactly he was proposing or advocating. For those reasons, we issue a verdict of “Mostly False.”