Ralph Northam Doesn’t Get Why You’re Mad at Him

January 31, 2019
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Northam: Was it something I said? (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Those crazy conservatives, the Washington Post regrets to inform you, are pouncing again. They’re getting their pro-life knickers in a major twist—and all just because the governor of Virginia, a former pediatrician and ostensibly moderate Democrat, spent Wednesday playing apparent footsie with the concept of infanticide.

During a radio interview with local WTOP, Gov. Ralph Northam had been asked to comment on a Democrat-sponsored bill in the state House of Delegates, which would dramatically ease restrictions on late-term abortions, right up to the moment when a woman goes into labor—as WTOP’s interviewer put it, “even as a woman is essentially dilating, ready to give birth.” She then asked Northam whether he supported that measure, and to explain the thinking behind it. He responded:

“The first thing I would say is, this is why decisions such as this should be made by providers, physicians, and the mothers and fathers that are involved. When we talk about third-trimester abortions… 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.”

The reaction was both swift and harsh. Conservatives charged Northam with defending allowing infants to die—the transparently reasonable way to take his remark, given that Northam had been asked to comment on cases of abortions at the moment of birth. When he started speaking instead about a child born alive, it was perfectly reasonable to assume he was considering a hypothetical situation where a child with a deformity had accidentally been born before she could be aborted—an assumption reinforced by Northam’s statement that “the infant would be resuscitated, if that’s what the mother and the family desired.”

Northam’s team, of course, immediately dropped into a defensive crouch, insisting the governor had been deliberately mischaracterized. “No woman seeks a third trimester abortion except in the case of tragic or difficult circumstances, such as a nonviable pregnancy or in the event of severe fetal abnormalities, and the governor’s comments were limited to actions physicians would take in the event that a woman in those circumstances went into labor.” National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis described the statement as a “bizarre mixture of walking back and doubling down,” and she’s exactly right: Even this statement dodges the question the interviewer posed and makes the governor’s position murkier rather than clearer. If the child was born, abnormalities or no, would doctors make an attempt to save its life or not?

What’s just as bad, however, is the institution that allows politicos like Northam to get away with dodges like this: mainstream press outlets that can’t muster an ounce of curiosity when the issue of abortion rears its head, falling back time and again into platitudes and euphemisms. The Washington Post’s story was cheerily content to accept Northam’s press statement uncritically, offering us the daffily content-free summation “Northam’s office later made clear the governor was talking about prognosis and medical treatment, not ending the life of a delivered baby.”

Other outlets also uncritically parroted Team Northam’s claim that his comments were taken out of context and that Republicans “are just trying to play politics with women’s health.” They were also quick to point out that, far from being a radical new liberal development, abortion right up to the moment of birth—or “through the third trimester,” to use the sanitary parlance—is already legal in Virginia.

And maybe that, after all, is what explains Team Northam’s apparent bemusement that his comments would provoke outrage. If aborting a fully formed baby is totally normal and acceptable, what’s so much worse about infanticide?

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger is a senior writer at The Bulwark.