Pressure is building on congressional Democrats this week to respond to the controversy over third-trimester abortions and the possibility of fetal survivor after such procedures. A growing number of states have already passed or are considering legislation meant to protect or extend abortion rights in anticipation of a possible U.S. Supreme Court vote that overturns Roe v. Wade.
After 25 failed attempts in recent weeks to bring the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to a floor vote in the U.S. House, Republican whip Steve Scalise planned to file a discharge petition on April 2, intended to bypass the resistance of leaders of the Democratic majority. If the petition receives 218 signatures (there are 197 Republican members in the chamber), House members must vote on the legislation. The act is intended to ensure that any child born alive following an abortion procedure receives the same degree of care as would be given to another child born at the same gestational age.
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement supporting the discharge petition effort. “Our nation is better than infanticide,” the archbishop said. “Babies born alive during the process of abortion deserve the same care and medical assistance as any other newborn.
“To not provide care is a lethal form of discrimination against the circumstances of the child’s birth,” he said. “I strongly urge all representatives to sign this petition, and then vote for the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. This bill would add specific requirements to help ensure that babies born alive after an abortion attempt can have a fair shot at life.”
The discharge petition was also endorsed on April 2 by the Catholic Medical Association. “As health care professionals, [we believe that late-term abortion] violates the moral law and our obligation to act in charity toward our neighbor, who happens to be in this case, the most helpless of patients,” said Dr. John Schirger, the association’s president. “We are reminded of our Lord’s admonition that whatever we do to the least of His children we do to Him,” he added.
“Babies born alive during the process of abortion deserve the same care and medical assistance as any other newborn.”
Pro-choice Democrats say the expansions of abortion rights they are proposing only pertain in the event of severe fetal deformity, conditions contrary to life or a severe threat to a woman’s life or health. But critics have raised concerns that such laws accept a kind of indirect infanticide in the aftermath of “botched” late-term procedures.
That concern became especially acute in January, when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam created a national uproar when he appeared to describe an act of passive infanticide while discussing the practical implications of a late-term abortion bill then being considered in the Virginia Legislature. That measure was voted down, but supporters plan to reintroduce it.
The issue threatens to be treacherous for House Democrats seeking re-election in districts that are relatively moderate on social issues. Americans are evenly split on abortion. Gallup pollsters report that 48 percent describe themselves as pro-life and 48 percent as pro-choice. According to Gallup, 50 percent of Americans say they believe abortion should be “legal only under certain circumstances.” And more than 80 percent say abortions in the last three months of pregnancy should be “generally illegal,” although 75 percent would accept the procedure if a mother’s life were at risk.
Defenders of recent state legislative moves to extend abortion rights beyond the 24-week limit outlined by the Supreme Court in Roe v Wade argue that so-called late-term abortions are exceedingly rare—just 1.3 percent of all abortions, according to the Center for Disease Control and Protection—and occur because of distinct threats to a mother’s life or health or because of profound fetal abnormality or inviability.
But critics charge that the expansion of abortion rights creates an opening for elective third-trimester abortions that had been deemed unacceptable under Roe v Wade. Other peer nations that allow abortion typically have far stricter restrictions on their permissibility than those already in law or contemplated here in the United States.
Critics charge that the expansion of abortion rights creates an opening for elective third-trimester abortions that had been deemed unacceptable under Roe v Wade.
Mr. Scalise’s move to force a vote may be partly an attempt to link House Democrats to support for late-term abortion. That strategy is OK with Democrats for Life of America, according to a statement the pro-life group released in February. “It is time for reason on the abortion issue,” the group said then, urging an up-or-down vote on the Born-Alive Act. “We recognize that a yea or nay vote is a political move by Republicans to show how extreme Democrats have become on this issue—but this time they have a point.
“With the recent New York law, and with several other states proposing to eliminate all health and safety regulation of the abortion industry, a full, open, and honest debate on whether we as a nation should protect infants who are born alive following an abortion is suddenly vitally important.”
Kristen Day, the executive director of Democrats For Life of America, says the act should “absolutely” be brought to a vote. She believes a few pro-life House Democrats are likely to support the discharge petition effort; Republicans otherwise do not have the votes to bring the act to the floor.
She acknowledges that the Republican legislation appears to be a trap for pro-choice Democrats, but it seems to be one many of them are eager to fall into. Democrats who vote against the measure are likely to be depicted as “supporters of health care for everyone except babies who survive abortion,” Ms. Day says. The attack ads “practically write themselves.”
Many Democrats have said they did not need to vote on the Born-Alive Act because other laws already cover the treatment of born-alive infants, according to Ms. Day. “If their argument is [that] infanticide is already against the law, why fight [the act]?” she asks, claiming that public opinion is trending against liberalization of abortion restrictions. “I absolutely think [Democratic] resistance is going to backfire.
“And we do need this clarification [about the obligation to respond to infant survivors],” she adds, “because abortion doctors don’t follow the law—we saw that with Kermit Gosnell—and we need to be very clear.”
She suggests Democratic politicians spend some time reading the actual text of the proposal. According to Ms. Day, during the Senate debate on its version of the bill in February, Democratic resistance was based on the belief that the act would undermine abortion rights. She says there is no such language in the actual text of the proposed law.
“The majority of Americans support reasonable limitations on abortion,” says Ms. Day. “Let it go through committee.”
Ms. Day urges Democrats in Congress not only to debate the bill but to make some additions to it. “We would take it a step further and say that it should include counseling for women and information about adoption for them should a baby survive abortion,” she says, describing those as minimum “humane” responses under the circumstances presumed by the legislation.