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Trump’s misleading comments about Gov. Ralph Northam and infanticide, explained

His claims about Democrats and third-trimester abortions may be part of a broader strategy.

President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11, 2019 in El Paso, Texas
President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11, 2019.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

At a rally in El Paso, Texas, on Monday, President Donald Trump accused Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, of supporting infanticide.

“The governor stated that he would even allow a newborn baby to come out into the world,” Trump told the crowd, “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!”

Trump was talking about comments Northam made in late January, when he was asked during a filmed radio interview about an abortion bill before the Virginia House of Delegates. The governor’s comments were confusing, and some took them, at the time, as an endorsement of infanticide. But the governor has said that he was “absolutely not” talking about infanticide — and in any case, the Virginia bill would certainly not allow doctors to “execute” a baby after it’s born.

Trump’s comments at the rally may be part of a larger strategy to stir up support among abortion opponents in advance of the 2020 election.

Here’s what Northam actually said about abortion

Virginia House Bill 2491, which would loosen some restrictions on abortion in Virginia, got national attention at the end of January. The bill would not change the time limit in which a person can get an abortion in Virginia, but it would broaden the health exceptions allowing someone to get an abortion in the third trimester.

The controversy started when Del. Kathy Tran, the bill’s sponsor, was asked in a committee hearing if the bill would allow an abortion when a woman is showing signs of labor.

“My bill would allow that,” Tran said.

Tran later said that she “misspoke” in the committee hearing, and that “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.’”

But the controversy had already begun. On January 30, Gov. Northam was asked on the Virginia radio station WTOP to give his thoughts on Tran’s response.

“Do you support her measure?” reporter Julie Carey asked. “Explain her answer.”

“This is why decisions such as this should be made by providers, physicians, and the mothers and fathers that are involved,” Northam said. “When we talk about third-trimester abortions,” he went on, “it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s nonviable.”

“If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen,” he added. “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.”

At the time, it was unclear what the governor was referring to, and many observers, especially on the right, took his words as an endorsement of infanticide.

But a spokesperson for the governor told Vox that he had “absolutely not” been referring to infanticide.

“The governor’s comments focused on the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities went into labor,” the spokesperson said.

The governor’s comments — and even later explanations of them — were unclear, and some speculated that he was not actually familiar with HB 2491. The episode also inspired scrutiny into his past, which led to the discovery of a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

Despite all this, Tran is correct: Infanticide is illegal in Virginia. HB 2491, which has now been tabled, would not make it legal. No abortion rights groups support it. Northam’s comments may have done a disservice to supporters of loosening abortion restrictions in Virginia, but no one in the state is actually saying it should be legal to execute babies after they are born.

Rather than an accurate description of abortion rights advocates’ position, Trump’s comments on Monday may be part of an effort on his part to drum up support among abortion opponents in advance of 2020.

Democrats are “pushing extreme late-term abortion,” Trump said at the El Paso rally, “allowing children to be ripped from their mother’s womb right up until the moment of birth.”

He’s now brought up abortion three times in the past week — at the State of the Union, at the National Prayer Breakfast last Thursday, and at the rally on Monday.

The remarks may be calculated to remind social conservatives that, whatever they think of Trump’s personal life (or his previous support for abortion rights), he has appointed two conservative justices to the Supreme Court. As some observers have pointed out, Trump likely needs the loyalty of abortion opponents in order to win reelection in 2020, and he appears to have started campaigning for it now.

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