Republicans’ amped-up focus on so-called late term abortions has brought new energy to the issue for their conservative base — forcing Democrats to respond to rhetoric about infanticide.
The GOP plans to keep at the message through the 2020 election, even if they lose the battle in Congress to pass a “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors” bill, H.R. 962, that abortion-rights advocates warn could add new pain to already wrenching medical decisions. Under criticism, Republicans’ language has only continued to escalate, including President Donald Trump’s charge this week that Democrats “don’t mind executing babies AFTER birth.”
Democrats are “taking a barbaric position,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the No. 2 Republican in the House. “It’s a radical far-left shift they’ve taken and, frankly, most Americans are sickened by that.”
So far the tactics aren’t swaying Democrats, who are highly unified around abortion rights and accuse the GOP of spreading inflammatory misinformation. To redirect the conversation, they hope to focus on aspects of women’s health where they are on more solid ground — for instance by, attacking the Trump administration’s recent move to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, congressional aides said.
But Republicans aim to keep the spotlight on their bill making it a felony for a doctor to harm or neglect an infant who survives an attempted abortion.
“This is red meat to their base,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said of Republicans pushing the bill. “They just continue to put out these kinds of factually wrong anti-choice amendments and bills. So we have to continue to fight back.”
Democrats argue that current law already protects infants, and that Republicans are creating a false narrative about doctors routinely allowing healthy, full-term babies to die, when in fact abortions late in pregnancy are rare and most involve severe fetal anomalies or risks to the life of the mother. Under the legislation, they warn, doctors could risk a felony conviction if they don’t hospitalize and resuscitate a newborn who is only going to live for a few hours, possibly in pain.
Supporters openly admit the “Born Alive” bill, S. 311, has no chance of passage in the current Congress, but they will keep pushing the legislation, using graphic narratives about violence against newborns. Some of the imagery is reminiscent of the battle — which Republicans ultimately won a decade ago — to outlaw so-called partial birth abortion.
Republican leaders and conservative advocacy groups say this new fight is an effective way to hammer Democrats and burnish their own credentials leading up to 2020, after recent years in which the GOP struggled to made headway with anti-abortion legislation.
Speakers at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference railed against “infanticide.” Trump has made late-term abortion a staple of his speeches, graphically describing the procedure in his State of the Union address, at the National Prayer Breakfast and at recent rallies. And on Capitol Hill, supporters are pushing for more votes on the “born alive” bill, hoping to keep the issue in the public eye and drive a wedge through the Democratic Party.
“It’s important to have this vote as many times as we possibly can, and we believe Leader [Mitch] McConnell will allow that to happen,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion-rights Susan B. Anthony List. “We play to win, but even if we come up short, it’s worth it because we need to show where they [Democrats] stand. The way this works is that you start to peel people off who are really feeling the heat back home, and they will feel the heat back home.”
But Democrats remain largely united against the effort, at least for now.
Only three Democratic senators broke ranks to support the bill Monday night, and the House for the first time has a majority of lawmakers who favor abortion rights. It’s a dramatic change from both the “partial birth abortion” battle of the 1990s and early-2000s, and the fight a decade ago over the Affordable Care Act, in which moderate Democrats nearly derailed passage of the health care law over concerns about abortion coverage.
Now, the Democratic Party’s large and influential progressive wing is confident the public is on its side when it comes to reproductive choice, and are moving to include taxpayer-funded coverage of abortion in their signature “Medicare for All” proposal and push other bills to loosen federal restrictions on the procedure.
“This is a different day and age,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), a leader of the House Pro-Choice Caucus and a co-sponsor of Medicare for All, H.R. 1384. “The fact that we’ve had such a large women’s movement, including the Women’s March, and so many women elected to Congress — that’s made a huge difference.”
Still, Democrats are frustrated by the right’s effective messaging on the “born alive” bill.
To counter the accusations of “infanticide,” Democrats say Republicans are misrepresenting why, when and how frequently abortions take place late in pregnancy. And they stress that if a doctor does harm a baby who was born alive — as in the notorious case of Philadelphia physician Kermit Gosnell — prosecutors bring murder charges under existing law.
A rare dissenter is Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), one of very few anti-abortion Democrats remaining in Congress. He told POLITICO that while he understands his colleagues’ arguments that the bill criminalizes acts that are already a crime, he sees no downside to passing duplicative laws to protect newborns.
“I want to make sure there’s no chance we don’t have the full measure of protection,” he said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office did not respond to multiple questions on whether she is allowing any members of her caucus to sign the GOP’s petition aimed at forcing a floor vote on the legislation.
Democrats blocked the bill in the Senate on Monday, and GOP efforts to force a House vote appear likely to fall short as well. But Republicans say they won’t drop the issue, as they hope to mobilize anti-abortion voters and box in Democrats with as many uncomfortable votes as they can manage.
“My admonition is: If you have a new member of Congress who doesn’t have a record on this, make sure they hear your voice on it,” said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), a former obstetrician and one of the leaders of the effort in the House. “If it’s a new freshman Democrat, they need to hear from people. Don’t let them make the mistake of being for something like this. It’s not the right thing to do.”
Republicans failed to pass significant abortion restrictions or cut funding for Planned Parenthood during their two years controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House — disappointing and angering conservative advocacy groups. Since the new divided Congress was sworn in, including during the government shutdown, the GOP-controlled Senate has called votes on several bills that would ban abortions in some circumstances and extend the ban on federal funding of abortions to include private health insurance plans in Obamacare markets.
It’s a strategy Republicans hope will fire up their base — and one Democrats hope will backfire.
“The right wing is capitalizing on a political opportunity, and this politically motivated stunt is appealing to a constituency they desperately need,” a senior Democratic aide told POLITICO. “But people really don’t want politicians making health care decisions and directing doctors at a deeply personal time for their families. And I think it’s a really a bad look for Republicans to force show-votes, including in middle of the shutdown.”
Republicans and conservative advocates insist their relentless focus on the issue is having an impact, bolstered by outrage on the right generated by New York voting to loosen its restrictions on third-trimester abortions and embattled Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam giving a graphic interview defending similar efforts in his state.
They point to a recent survey conducted by the polling firm Marist and the Knights of Columbus — a Catholic social organization that lobbies for anti-abortion policies — that shows a swift and substantial increase in the number of Americans identifying as “pro-life.”
“Democrats have really taken this to an extreme place that’s out of line with a lot of voters,” said Chris Pack, the communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “I think it’s politically damaging and will hurt virtually every Democrat running in the battleground seats that we’ve identified as targets.”
Numerous other opinion polls show public support for abortion holding stable over the years — even as opinions have shifted dramatically on other issues like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. And abortion rights supporters point to the results of the last midterm election as more powerful evidence than polls of where voters stand on the question.
“In 2018, voters overwhelmingly rejected attacks on health care and reproductive rights — we need only look at the U.S. House of Representatives for proof,” said Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen.
High turnout, particularly among progressive women voters, flipped 43 House seats, seven governors’ seats and seven state legislative chambers to Democrats, and put in power many of the officials now pushing policies to increase access to late-term abortions, expand public funding for the procedure and enshrine Roe v. Wade protections into state law just in case the Supreme Court strikes them down.
But with eyes on the presidential election in 2020, conservatives are confident that Democrats are moving so far left that they will alienate the moderate voters they will need to win back the White House and Senate.
“It shows that’s we’re on the edge of a robust Democratic primary, so they’re going to go to these extremes,” Dannenfelser said. “But it’s hard to tack back to the middle after that. In some areas, if they’re thinking about reelects and the power of the pro-life movement to draw attention to this, they’re going to have to be allowed to vote their conscience.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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