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On the brink of deciding whether he’ll seek the Democratic presidential nomination, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe is being accused of flip-flopping on a bill that would have eased Virginia’s restrictions on late-term abortions.
The criticism was leveled last week by Victoria Cobb, an anti-abortion activist who is president of The Family Foundation in Virginia; John Fredericks, a conservative radio talk show host; and several conservative websites.
Virginia allows third-trimester abortions in hospitals if three physicians certify that a continued pregnancy would "likely" kill the woman or "substantially and irremediably" impair her mental or physical health.
Legislation - introduced in January by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax - would have lowered the threshold from three physicians to one. That doctor would only have to certify that the pregnancy would damage a woman’s health. The "substantial and irremediable" threshold would have been repealed.
The bill was killed this winter by Republicans ruling the House Courts of Justice Committee, a year after McAuliffe’s governorship ended. But it’s tremors have rocked Virginia politics.
Tran, under tough questioning by Republicans during a Jan. 29 hearing, acknowledged that her bill would allow an abortion when a mother is dilating. During a year when all 140 General Assembly are on the ballot and partisan control is up for grabs, Republicans are planning to use the bill and Tran’s statement to argue Democrats support abortions almost up to birth.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s clumsy defense of Tran during a January 30 radio show deepened the controversy. Northam, a physician, discussed what happens when a fetus is incapable of surviving outside a womb. He said the baby is delivered, made comfortable, revived at the mother’s request, "and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother."
Northam’s comments spurred Republican charges that he was backing infanticide, an accusation the governor denounced. They reportedly spurred an outraged person to leak a picture from Northam’s page in his 1984 medical school yearbook showing one person in a painted black face and another in Ku Klux Klan garb.
Northam worsened matters during a February 2 news conference when he denied that he was either person in the photo, said he didn’t know how the photo got on his yearbook page, offered that he had gone black face once in medical school to appear as Michael Jackson, and seemed ready to demonstrate his Jackson-like "Moonwalk" before his wife dissuaded him.
After the news conference, many of Northam’s fellow Democrats - including McAuliffe - called for the governor’s resignation.
McAuliffe statement No. 1
The next day, February 3, McAuliffe made a national TV appeal for Northam’s resignation on CNN’s "State of the Union." Host Jake Tapper played Northam’s radio interview defending the late-term abortion bill. "Do you support this new legislation? And what was your reaction to the governor's comments there? " he asked McAuliffe.
"Absolutely not," McAuliffe said. "And I think Ralph (Northam) misspoke on that. No Democrat I know is for infanticide, none, none. I just don't know of anyone who is for it."
McAuliffe statement No. 2
McAuliffe had a different response during an April 1 interview on The John Fredericks Show, broadcast from Portsmouth. McAuliffe spent much of his time talking about his record and his deliberations about running for president. At one point, Fredericks turned to the late-term abortion bill and asked, "If you were governor, would you have vetoed that bill if it hit your desk?"
McAuliffe took three minutes to answer. He said the purpose of the bill was to save pregnant women facing life-threatening circumstances in rural areas where it’s hard to find one doctor - let alone three - to approve a third-trimester abortion.
The former governor accurately noted that only two third-term abortions have been reported to the state’s Department of Health since 2000. And he said efforts to "demonize" women undermine the state’s recruitment of businesses.
Four times, Fredericks prodded McAuliffe to get to the point. "Governor, would you have vetoed the bill? Yes or no?" he finally asked.
"I would not have vetoed the bill," McAuliffe replied. "And listen, I have not read the whole bill, John, but from what I read in the newspaper, if the one thing in the bill was to go from three to one (doctors) to help with rural communities…I would support that. Sure I would."
He added, "A woman’s life or death may be on the line and, you know, one doctor is as good as three. Why do you need three if you’ve got a qualified doctor?"
We asked Crystal Carson, McAuliffe’s spokesperson, whether the former governor’s position on the bill had changed. Her response was unclear.
"The only people talking about "infanticide" are anti-choice, anti-women Republicans," she wrote in an email. "Of course Governor McAuliffe is against "infanticide" - any reasonable person would be. (The bill) has nothing to do with that - but instead reduces invasive, medically-unnecessary requirements put on women across the Commonwealth and enables them to make their own health care decisions in consultation with their doctors. For that reason the Governor would not have vetoed the bill."
We should note that McAuliffe ran for governor in 2013 pledging to be "a brick wall" against efforts to diminish abortion rights. During his term, new members McAuliffe appointed to Virginia’s Board of Health repealed stringent building standards that had forced some abortion clinics to close. He also vetoed a bill that would have eliminated state funding to Planned Parenthood, a major abortion provider.
On February 3, McAuliffe said he would have "absolutely not" supported a bill that would have eased Virginia’s requirements for a third-third trimester abortion.
In contrast, On April 1, he said he "would not have vetoed" the late-term bill if he had been governor this year. He said a provision that would have lowered from three to one the number of doctors required to approve a third-semester abortion could save rural women whose lives are jeopardized by pregnancies. "I would support that. Sure I would," he said.
One bill, two polar positions. That’s a Full Flop.
Legislative Information System, HB2491, Jan. 28, 2019.
Gov. Ralph Northam, Radio interview on WTOP, Jan. 30, 2019.
Del. Kathy Tran, Comments to House Courts of Justice Subcommittee 4, Jan. 28, 2019 (1:45 mark).
Terry McAuliffe, Interview on CNN’s "State of the Union," (11:37 mark), Feb. 3, 2019 (11:37 mark).
McAuliffe, Comments on The John Fredericks Show (36:56 mark), April 1, 2019.
Victoria Cobb, Comments of The John Fredericks Show, April 2, 2019.
The Republican Standard, "McAuliffe Now Says He Supports Virginia’s Controversial Late-Term Abortion Bill," April 1, 2019.
The Washington Free Beacon, "McAuliffe Flips on Late-Term Abortion Bill, Calls it ‘Common Sense’," April 1, 2019.
Email from Crystal Carson, spokesperson for McAuliffe, April 8, 2019.
Time, "Virginia Governor Challenges Abortion Clinic Regulations," May 13, 2014.
The Virginian-Pilot, "McAuliffe vetoes bill he says threatens Planned Parenthood," May 29, 2016.
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