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How "late-term abortion" could become a 2020 flashpoint

Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence at the 2019 State of the Union.
Trump at the State of the Union. Photo: Bill Clark/Getty Images

President Trump set up the controversial issue of "late-term abortion" as a potential 2020 flashpoint on Tuesday, using his State of the Union address to graphically denounce Democrats for permitting "a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments from birth."

Driving the news: A pair of state measures that loosened, or sought to loosen, abortion restrictions in New York and Virginia were met with widespread condemnation from Republicans that reached a fever pitch after a radio interview on the topic by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam last week — before his administration pitched into chaos over a racist medical school yearbook photo.

The legislation: New York's newly passed law allows abortion when there is "an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health" after the 24th week of pregnancy.

  • And Virginia's proposed law, which failed to make it out of committee in the statehouse, would have eliminated some of the state's restrictions on late-term abortion, including reducing the numbers of doctors needed to sign off on such a procedure from three to one.

The controversy: Virginia Del. Kathy Tran, a sponsor of her state's bill, answered affirmatively during a state legislative session when she was asked by a Republican lawmaker if it would allow an abortion while a woman was in labor.

  • When asked by radio station WTOP last week about Tran's statement, Northam, who is a trained pediatric neurologist, said abortions may be "done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s not viable. So in this particular example, if a mother’s 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."

What they're saying: Both Tran and Northam's comments were condemned by Republicans as "infanticide," prompting backlash from top Republicans, including Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, and clarifications from the Virginia lawmakers.

  • Northam, via his spokesperson: "Attempts to extrapolate these comments otherwise is in bad faith and underscores exactly why the governor believes physicians and women, not legislators, should make these difficult and deeply personal medical decisions."
  • Tran: "I should have said: 'Clearly, no, because infanticide is not allowed in Virginia, and what would have happened in that moment would be a live birth.'"
  • Trump: "Democrats are becoming the Party of late term abortion, high taxes, Open Borders and Crime!"
  • Pence: "This shameless embrace of a culture of death is startling to every American who cherishes life."
  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.): "In just a few years pro-abortion zealots went from 'safe, legal, and rare' to 'keep the newborns comfortable while the doctor debates infanticide.'"

The facts: According to the CDC, only about 1% of abortions take place after 21 weeks.

  • Abortion rates among U.S. women in all age groups dropped sharply to a decade low from 2006 to 2015 — and nearly 90% of abortions performed in 2015 were within a woman's first 13 weeks of pregnancy.
  • In an interview with CNN, Barbara Levy, the vice president of health policy at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said, "The phrase 'late-term abortion,' is medically inaccurate and has no clinical meaning."
  • Jennifer Conti, a fellow with the advocacy group Physicians for Reproductive Health, also told CNN: "In obstetrics, we don't divide pregnancies into terms. 'Late term' is an invention of anti-abortion extremists to confuse, mislead and increase stigma."

The bottom line, via the New York Times: "[A]mong conservatives, the White House's outrage was also greeted as a clear and shrewd political strategy — to rally Republicans with an eye toward the 2020 presidential election, and to close ranks around Mr. Trump, embattled though he may be, as their unequivocal leader."

  • "It's going to come into play, quite frankly, in the elections next year. We're not going to let it go away," Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, told the Times.

Go deeper: U.S. abortion rates dropped to record low between 2006 and 2015