Democratic lawmakers, 2020 candidates mostly silent on late-term abortion bill backlash

Democratic lawmakers and 2020 presidential candidates have largely avoided the quickly escalating national debate over late-term abortions prompted by state bills that would roll back those restrictions – and by controversial comments from supportive officials – as conservatives press party leaders to take a stand.

After Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments about a late-term abortion bill in his state sparked outrage this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed not to be following the issue.

“I just don’t know what he said,” she told reporters Thursday.

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Other congressional Democrats likewise declined to comment to Fox News, winding up a two-day retreat on Capitol grounds saying the issue never came up.

Fox News found just one Democratic lawmaker who even knew what Northam had said – and was one of Northam’s predecessors as governor. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine indicated his state’s current law should not be changed.

“Current Virginia law, which has been in place since the 1970s, I support and I don’t think it needs to be changed,” Kaine told Fox News.

The Virginia bill that kicked up the controversy this week already has been tabled. But the details and the way in which it was described by supporters raised concerns about how far states might go in the area of late-term abortions, as New York and other states already take action to loosen restrictions.

While current Virginia law does not prohibit late-term abortions, the proposed bill would cut the number of doctors needed to certify such an abortion as necessary from three to one. A doctor would still have to certify the pregnancy would impair the mother’s health, but the bill would ease the standard for that determination.

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Presenting the debate in stark terms, a video circulated earlier this week of sponsor Del. Kathy Tran being asked whether a woman about to give birth and dilating could still request an abortion.

“My bill would allow that, yes,” she answered.

Amid a swift backlash from pro-life lawmakers, Tran initially defended her stance but eventually walked back her remarks, telling The Washington Post that she “misspoke” and regrets what she said.

“I should have said: 'Clearly, no, because infanticide is not allowed in Virginia,'” she told The Post.

But Gov. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, was accused by conservatives of opening the door to just that when he said in a WTOP interview that third-trimester abortions are done with “the consent of obviously the mother, with consent of the physician, multiple physicians by the way, and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities or there may be a fetus that’s not 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 family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother,” he explained.

Northam defended his remarks and accused critics of twisting his meaning, saying: "I have devoted my life to caring for children and insinuation otherwise is shameful and disgusting."

But Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who’s been particularly outspoken on these bills, accused Northam of ducking because he’s “terrified of an extremist pro-abortion lobby that now defends even infanticide."

Speaking on Fox News’ “The Daily Briefing,” Sasse said, “Every Democrat should have to answer for whether they stand with little baby girls who are born alive surviving an abortion or whether they stand with Governor Northam's repugnant comments.”

He said the 2020 candidates should do the same.

“Where’s the outrage from the left over what he said?” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted.

Fox News on Thursday reached out to Democrats who have either announced their presidential candidacies or formed exploratory committees. Most did not respond, save for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The Afghanistan War veteran and longshot for the White House told Fox News:

“I’m from Indiana, so I have a lot of friends and supporters who don’t share my views on choice. I understand that it’s an intensely felt and very personal issue for a lot of people. But there is no decision more personal for a lot of women than this one. I believe that a male government official like me does not belong in the middle of decisions that are best left to women and their doctors.”

Candidates including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts did not respond to requests for comment.

But they are among Senate Democrats who have already staked out positions on late-term abortion – as co-sponsors of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would permit third-trimester abortions in states that currently outlaw them.

Harris, in her campaign kickoff rally last weekend in Oakland, said reproductive rights should be “not just protected by the Constitution of the United States but guaranteed in every state.”

Speaking in Iowa on Jan. 4, Warren said, “a woman makes a decision with her family, her priest, her doctor, the people the woman chooses, and I think that's what respects all of us the most."

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Sasse also questioned why pro-life Democrats have not spoken out in opposition to the comments made by Northam and Tran. Neither of the two pro-life Democrats in the Senate – Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – has taken a public stance on the comments.

Fox News’ Paul Steinhauser, Brooke Singman and Andrew O’Reilly contributed to this report.