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Washington CNN  — 

The delicate issue of third-trimester abortions has been in the news recently, with legislation in New York and Virginia sparking new controversy. The issue was amplified by comments last week from Virginia’s embattled Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump took on the issue with characteristically strong language, citing these recent events to push for “legislation to prohibit late-term abortion,” a move sure to ignite his supporters who oppose abortion.

Here’s some context to the policy moves across the country.

New York

The Reproductive Health Act, signed into law last month in New York, allows for abortions after 24 weeks if an authorized health care practitioner determines that “the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health” or if “there is an absence of fetal viability.”

New York’s new law expands access to abortions into the third trimester by loosening restrictions on when the procedure is permitted. Previously, an abortion could only be performed after 24 weeks if the physician deemed it necessary to preserve the life of the mother. Under the new law, the requirement has been expanded to include the general health of the mother.


Virginia Democratic Delegate Kathy Tran recently sponsored legislation that would have relaxed certain requirements around third-trimester abortions in the state.

Under current state law, third-trimester abortions can only be performed if three doctors agree the “pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.” The failed bill would have reduced the number of physicians needed to approve the abortion to one, and removed “substantially and irremediably” from the language of justification for the abortion.

During a committee hearing on the now defunct bill, Tran was asked “how late in the third trimester could a physician perform an abortion if he indicated it would impair the mental health of the woman?” “Through the third trimester,” Tran responded, clarifying that there was no limit in the proposed bill for when an abortion could be performed prior to the birth.

Northam was asked about Tran’s comments in a Jan. 30 interview with the radio station WTOP. Northam began to explain what he thought occurs in such an instance. His comments sparked confusion and controversy among abortion opponents.

“The infant would be delivered,” Northam said, “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.”

Later, a spokesperson for Northam said his “comments were limited to the actions physicians would take in the event that a woman in those circumstances [i.e. nonviable pregnancy and severe fetal abnormalities] went into labor.”

This clarification, however, does not address the statement made by Northam that “the infant would be delivered.”

By the numbers

According to the Guttmacher Institute – an organization focused on sexual and reproductive health – “slightly more than 1% of abortions are performed at 21 weeks or later.” The CDC estimates that a total of 638,169 abortions were performed in the US during 2015.

The battle over abortion legislation continues to rage in state capitols around the country. Nothing is expected to come from the currently divided Congress, and all eyes are on the Supreme Court and whether they’ll take up the case around Louisiana’s Unsafe Abortion Protection Act this week.