Conservatives manufacture controversy over later abortions. Here are the facts.

How a Virginia abortion bill got caught up in an old, manufactured controversy over ‘infanticide.’

Protesters on both sides of the abortion issue gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building during the Right To Life March, on January 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Protesters on both sides of the abortion issue gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building during the Right To Life March, on January 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump and dozens of other conservatives are weighing in about a Virginia abortion bill that modestly loosens restrictions around later abortions, falsely characterizing it as “infanticide.”

“God, help us. Virginia bill would legalize abortion up to birth,” tweeted president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Albert Mohler. If you Google “Kathy Tran,” who’s Virginia’s first Asian-American female delegate and sponsor of the abortion bill, you’ll see dozens of reactions like this, many even cruder.

Virginia lawmakers aren’t trying to legalize abortion up to birth. In fact, the bill keeps Virginia’s narrow exceptions for later abortions, saying a licensed provider can only perform a third-trimester abortion if they believe the pregnancy will result in death or impair the person’s mental or physical health. The bill just strikes the language “substantially and irremediably,” as such terms overly regulate a doctor’s professional opinion.

Through these modifications, Democratic lawmakers are better aligning Virginia law with other state laws, as the bill also changes current state law around third-trimester abortions by reducing the number of doctors who need to sign off on the procedure from three to one. Only Virginia and two other states — Montana and North Dakota — require three physicians to sign off on later abortions, according to Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state policies for the Guttmacher Institute.


“If a provider is looking at a really serious health situation for a pregnant person, then that care needs to be provided as quickly as possible and waiting on determination from other physicians could be a problematic delay,” Nash told ThinkProgress.

Here’s the language of the bill conservatives are calling “infanticide”:

Screenshot of bill
Screenshot of bill

“We have seen conservatives over the course of many years raise this kind of issue around abortions later in pregnancy and what this is, is a red-herring. This is about distracting from the actual contents of the bill. This is distracting from the idea that pregnant people have the autonomy to make decisions for themselves,” Nash added.

The bill garnered attention after a video from Tuesday of the bill’s sponsor went viral. A Republican lawmaker asked Tran how late in the third-trimester a medical provider could perform an abortion.

“Where it’s obvious a woman is about to give birth… would that still be at a point at which she can request an abortion if she was so certified — she’s dilating?” the Republican lawmaker said. 

Tran responded, “Yes.” 

Ask any abortion provider, particularly someone who performs abortions later in pregnancy, and they’ll tell you the question posed is nonsensical at best. Moreover, the question does nothing but reduce a complicated experience into a 30-second soundbite.


“It’s the creation of a hypothetical that has nothing to do with the reality of how pregnancies are handled ethically or legally,” said Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider and board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health.

“Even when you get a later gestational age, like somebody was 30 or 32 weeks pregnant and they are critically ill, that woman’s labor would be induced and she would have a premature birth, not a third-trimester abortion. So that’s disingenuous, inflammatory rhetoric,” Parker told ThinkProgress. “I think we always get into trouble when we ask hypothetical questions, but the women who need this care, they are not hypothetical… I’ve seen people who have late diagnosis of anencephaly [an underdeveloped brain]. I’ve seen people where the fetus has no kidneys at 35 or 36 weeks.”

“I think we always get into trouble when we ask hypothetical questions, but the women who need this care, they are not hypothetical.”

The clip has also been used as a “gotcha” moment for other politicians. Conservatives, including Trump, are condemning Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for his response to the manufactured controversy, in which he said, “this is why decisions such as this should be made by providers, physicians, and the mothers and fathers that are involved.”

Conservatives have managed to spin it so far, one Democratic lawmaker has even walked back her support for Tran’s measure.

This isn’t the first time conservatives manufactured a controversy about “infanticide.” In 2013, conservatives blasted Planned Parenthood officials for supporting “the right to post-birth abortion.” Like in Tran’s case, a Planned Parenthood official was asked to comment about a highly unlikely, hypothetical situation: “If a baby is born on a table as a result of a botched abortion, what would Planned Parenthood want to have happen to that child that is struggling for life?”


Planned Parenthood’s Alisa LaPolt Snow responded by saying that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is between the patient and the provider — and this was enough for conservatives to decry “infanticide.”

That later abortion is the subject of manufactured controversies like these is indicative of the lack of knowledge around it. The public discourse around later abortions vilifies people who are already grappling with an emotionally heavy decision, leading a rare procedure to become very private as a result.

First off, most abortions take place early in pregnancy, and just over 1 percent of abortions are performed at 21 weeks or later. When people do have abortions later in pregnancy, it’s hard to make generalizations about the decision to do so. While conservative columnists are comfortable making definitive claims as to why people may choose the procedure, others who research the subject for a living are not.

“There’s not good data nor is there a real possibility of obtaining accurate data… We’re not talking about a singular procedure, there’s not a medical code you can read,” said Katrina Kimport, of the University of California San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program.

What she will say, after speaking with dozens of women who’ve had abortions after 24 weeks, is that “these were people who received a piece of information that made the pregnancy they were carrying no longer one they wanted to continue.” For some, that “piece of information” was the pregnant person discovering the fetal development later in pregnancy because it was medically impossible to do so any earlier. For others, “the piece of information” was learning about existing barriers to abortions before 24 weeks, like the fact that public insurance doesn’t cover it. Whatever the response, it is often too nuanced to be made into a soundbite.

The decision to have the procedure becomes especially private because of the public condemnation that’s particularly acute for people who have later abortions.

“Although every single woman I spoke to had only positive things to say about the compassionate care they received from an abortion provider, there were many things about their overarching experiences about getting a later abortion… that were traumatic,” said Kimport

“Learning that a fetus you were carrying had a health problem — for some people I interviewed who took motherhood very seriously, it was an emotional hardship to think that they have failed their baby. That was traumatic,” she said.

“Having to hear people talk in cruel ways about a decision they were so emotionally tied to is traumatic. Having their stories being mischaracterized and used as political fodder is traumatic…If you could put yourself in the shoes of that person, why would you want to be public about it?”

Still, the people who spoke with Kimport anonymously were eager to participate in her research because they wanted people to know this was a lived experience and a decision right for them.