The U.S. Congress banned partial birth abortions, i.e., abortions performed late in pregnancy (usually from five to nine months), in 2003. In partial birth abortions, delivery is initiated only to be interrupted before the baby’s head emerges from the birth canal, at which time the abortionist punctures the skull with a scissors-like instrument and suctions the brain out, resulting in death. In the 1996 debates that eventually led to the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, New York’s Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—hardly a right-wing conservative—called the procedure “as close to infanticide as anything I have come upon.”

What a difference 23 years makes.

Virginia’s Legislature, sitting for its 2019 session, is now closely divided politically. State Democrats are one to two votes away from holding a majority in both chambers, and have been using the session to proclaim their commitment to abortion. The Senate took up purported ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (which, according to the terms of the resolution submitting it to the states, died in 1979) only to be (at least temporarily) blocked in a House of Delegates subcommittee. I have argued that ERA could potentially be used to graft abortion into the U.S. Constitution. Fairfax County Delegate Kathy Tran is pushing legislation to loosen restrictions on abortions performed in the second and third trimesters (i.e., four to nine months of pregnancy). Her bill mirrors efforts by abortionists in other states—most prominently in New York and Rhode Island—to obliterate any restrictions on abortion through birth, part of an effort to provide legislative insurance in case the Supreme Court modifies Roe et al. v. Wade. Asked about Tran’s bill, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (a pediatric neurologist) defended it. Speaking in a radio interview and asked about handicapped newborns, he said: “…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.’”

Critics (rightly) have branded Northam, who doubled down on his statement, as defending infanticide. A whole passel of abortionist commentators (see, e.g., here and here) assure us his radical statement is being read out of context. It is not.

When I was a graduate student, one of my finest professors, Fr. John McDermott, SJ, used to tell a story about his doctoral dissertation, in the first draft of which he cut to pieces the “transcendental Thomism” of Pierre Rousselot (and, by extension, all the thinkers who followed that school). His mentor made clear to him that although simple devastation of an opponent might in the end be accurate, it does not pay sufficient attention to the nuances of the opponent’s thoughts. McDermott went back and, although he reached the same conclusions, his more refined critique was also more effective in showing what was at stake.

So, yes, I absolutely believe Northam is advocating infanticide, but I want to refine the argument to show exactly how we got there.        

The Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act should be uncontroversial. Most Americans are (rightly) repelled by the idea of abortion in the second or third trimesters of pregnancy. All public opinion polls confirm this. If there was such a thing as a “common consensus” on abortion (a will-o’the-wisp avowed by certain commentators who cannot admit that the Left is largely AWOL on the civil rights issue of our times), we ought to be able to admit that abortion in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth months of pregnancy ought not to be legal. So why did Senator Patty Murray block Senate consideration of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act on Feb. 4?

But abortion orthodoxy insists that no abortion at any time under any circumstances can be questioned. To do so violates the “choice” theology of the abortionist position. So extremely rare hard cases are trotted out to justify the liberalization of abortion policy even in the third trimester, usually hidden under the meaninglessly expansive category of “health” which, under Doe v. Bolton, essentially can mean anything any pregnant woman wants it to mean. Even the abortionists, however, know that the primary reasons behind second and third trimester abortions are socio-economic, not medical: David French offers a Guttmacher Institute study to corroborate that claim.

When the National Right to Life Committee launched the campaign against partial birth abortion in the 1990s, it supported the debate by using medical textbook type sketches of what the procedure involved. Abortionists fought the use of those illustrations just as they berated the videos exposing Planned Parenthood’s trafficking in baby parts and as they fight giving pregnant women ultrasounds of their unborn child (a Virginia requirement that Tran’s bill would repeal). I have long believed that the disappearance of the pictures of what abortion entails hurts the pro-life cause.

Abortionists performing their “procedures” post-viability are in a bind. Dilation and evacuation (AKA partial birth) abortions were horrible PR for abortionists. But then there’s also that pesky 14th Amendment which, no matter how much the Supreme Court may wring its hands in feigning epistemological ignorance about when life begins, compels the government to protect human beings once they are born. Once a baby escapes the abortionist and emerges from the birth canal, it is now a U.S. citizen with all the rights of a U.S. citizen, including the right not to be “deprived of life without due process of law.”

Partial birth abortion depended on skull piercing and collapse to ensure that a baby was not born alive. To overcome the bad publicity such procedures shown on abortionists, most late-term abortions today involve administering to the fetus a dose of digoxin or potassium chloride. The drug stops the heart (essentially, it induces a heart attack); once the beating heart is stopped, a dead fetus is then delivered. That’s why abortionists are so dead set against the efforts of some states to ban abortion once a fetal heart beat is detected: apart from the scientific truth, it raises unsavory questions abortionists would rather dodge, like: “if this is just a “blob of tissue,” why is it the only “blob of tissue” that has its own heartbeat?” or “if the fetus is really just ‘part of the mother,’ does that mean the woman has two hearts?”

Despite “best” efforts, however, sometimes a baby in a late-term abortion is born alive. Various states have sought to recognize that there is now a separate human being with the claim to life of a born person and so demanded that a physician be in attendance to care for that separate patient should it be born alive. The argument is justified by the fact that a woman whose physician intends to induce an abortion cannot be considered to have an impartial, best-interests-of-the-child interest should a child be delivered alive, and so this new citizen-person should be protected. This, too, should be uncontroversial, yet it is: then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama proved his pro-abortion creds in 2001 and 2002 by opposing such legislation in the Illinois Legislature. So, the basic pro-abortion position is essentially that “once a baby has been targeted for abortion it thereafter has no inherent right to the food, comfort, and medical care provided to other babies born alive.”

Which leads us to the last step, bringing us to Northam. Abortion as a “solution” to fetal handicap and deformity is strongly promoted in many circles. In some countries, Down syndrome is being eliminated by eliminating babies with Down syndrome before birth. This is, of course, a false “cure,” because (a) what is eliminated is not the disease but the victim of the disease; and (b) even if every last Down syndrome fetus was killed tomorrow, Down’s would remain a “threat” because its origin is genetic. Still, as I heard at a recent conference, perhaps 90 percent of prenatal testing (including false positives) which identifies a fetus as genetically “abnormal” lead to abortion.

So what happens if one of those fetuses sneaks by the abortionists?

That’s when you get to Governor Northam. He does not say he is going to protect that sick newborn. No, he’s going to “resuscitate” that baby “if that’s what the mother and family desired” (which implicitly means he would leave the child to die if that’s “what the mother and family desire”). If he “resuscitates” the child, then he promises us a “discussion between the physician and the mother.” (What about the “father?” And at least we’re not in England, where the discussion about whether the child will live might be just among physicians, ignoring the parents: cf. Charlie Gard).

Americans went down this road in the early 1980s when the Baby Doe case arose in Indiana. In that case, the decision to provide treatment for a handicapped newborn was not made on the basis of the efficacy of the therapy but upon a social determination between the attending physician and the parents that the child’s life was not worth living. The Reagan Administration intervened, arguing rightly that such non-treatment constituted discrimination against the handicapped. The treatment was withheld not because it would not prolong the child’s life but because somebody else decided that life was not worth prolonging. They had a “discussion.”

Northam’s answer flared up in the media because its candid eugenic implications were apparent for all to see. But Northam’s views have a very strong following among “bioethicists” who would frankly make treatment of handicapped newborns—even though they are citizens with a right to life—dependent not on medical criteria but social choices made by others about the value of that life. In the United States, it still might involve parents; in other countries, as we saw in the Charlie Gard case, it does not necessarily. Northam let the cat out of the bag.

Nor should anybody be surprised. Elite bioethical and philosophical views have long recognized that the “inches” between feticide and infanticide are few and perhaps not that significant. Princeton “ethicist” Peter Singer has long advocated a “returns” policy on handicapped newborns so that, if parents discover their baby—despite the best of prenatal testing—is handicapped, they can legally kill him. James Watson made similar arguments in the 1970s. Back in 2011, the Journal of Medical Ethics published the seminal Minerva-Giubilini article, “After Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” bluntly asking what is so special about the moment of birth that one could not eliminate a handicapped newborn after being born? Of course, the authors subsequently made the obligatory disclaimers that were not actually suggesting their idea be made “legal.” No, gosh, of course not: just an intellectual exercise, nothing to see here, move along.

I note that Northam is governor of Virginia, the state that was responsible in the early 20th century for mandatory sterilization of mentally disabled persons, a policy the Commonwealth defended successfully all the way to the Supreme Court. That case, Buck v. Bell (containing Oliver Wendell Holmes’ infamous dictum, “three generations of imbeciles is enough”) was never overruled, presumably making it a 92-year-old “super precedent.”

Northam is, of course, in the midst of a firestorm because of pictures in his 1984 medical school yearbook that suggest he donned blackface. The governor might soon be forced out of office for his behavior.

I make no excuse for university behavior 35 years ago, but I’m also interested in his discriminatory behavior today. He’d never put on a KKK robe now, but he has advocated—even doubled-down—on discriminatory treatment toward handicapped newborns today.

Is this where we want to be as a society?

(All views expressed herein are exclusively those of the author.)