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Bill on botched abortions fails to pass Senate

·Chief National Correspondent
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The U.S. Senate failed to pass a Republican-sponsored bill on Monday intended to increase criminal penalties for doctors who do not try to resuscitate babies who survive third-trimester abortions.

Three Democrats — Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — joined 50 Republicans in voting for the bill introduced by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., but the measure fell short of the 60-vote threshold required to overcome a filibuster. Forty-four Democrats voted against the bill.

The vote, and the debate that preceded it, was a textbook case of how polarized the two parties have become on the issues of abortion and women’s rights.

“It exemplifies the utter lack of trust that exists among policymakers — and I fear, much of the general public — when it comes to the issue of abortion,” said Michael Wear, a former White House faith adviser to President Barack Obama.

Sasse and other Republicans said the vote was a straightforward measure designed to increase the threat of criminal penalties for any doctor or medical provider who might allow a baby who survived a botched abortion to die.

“I want to ask each and every one of my colleagues whether or not we're OK with infanticide,” Sasse said on the Senate floor prior to the vote. “This language is blunt. I recognize that. it is too blunt for many people in this body. But frankly, that is what we're talking about here today.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono speaks during the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act debate in the Senate. (Screengrab via Senate.gov)
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, speaks during the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act debate in the Senate. (Screengrab via Senate.gov)

Sasse said his bill had nothing to do with abortion or restricting access to abortion.

But many Democrats — most of them women — came to the floor to criticize Sasse’s legislation as a political stunt designed to make them look bad and to rev up the Republican base.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said the bill was a “shameful” politicization of late-term abortion, and said it would have a “chilling effect” on abortion providers.

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, called the bill “a solution in search of a problem,” saying that it has always been a crime to kill a baby or to let it die after birth.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., said it would “compel physicians to provide unnecessary medical care.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was one of several Democrats who said the bill was part of a systematic effort by Republicans to restrict access to abortion through various laws at the federal and state level.

“Republicans are determined to make abortion impossible in the United States,” Murray said.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam prepares to address a press conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019.  Northam made a statement and  answered questions about the late term abortion bill that was killed in committee.  (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam prepares for a press conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 31, 2019, on a late-term abortion bill killed in committee. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Republicans said they were trying to close what Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, called a “critical loophole” in existing law.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said that the bill would provide “federal enforcement teeth” to follow up the 2002 Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. That bill defined a baby that survived a botched abortion as a human, but did not prescribe specific criminal penalties if medical providers did nothing to help that baby survive.

A recent series of developments in New York and Virginia prompted Sasse and Senate Republicans to bring this issue up again.

The New York legislature passed a law in late January that allows for abortion after a fetus is 24 weeks old if there is “an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”

A few days later, a Democratic legislator in the Virginia House of Delegates, Kathy Tran, told a Republican committee that her bill to decrease the obstacles to a third-term abortion would allow a baby to be aborted even at the moment a mother was giving birth.

Tran later told the Washington Post she had misspoken. “I should have said: ‘Clearly, no, because infanticide is not allowed in Virginia, and what would have happened in that moment would be a live birth,’” she said.

Tran’s bill did not make it out of committee.

A demonstrator holds a sign as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, speaks during a press conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. Northam made a statement and answered questions about the late term abortion bill that was killed in committee. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)
A demonstrator protests as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, addresses a press conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 31, 2019, on a late-term abortion bill that was killed in committee. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)

Asked about Tran’s comments, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam told WTOP radio that third-trimester abortions are “done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s not viable.”

“So in this particular example, if a mother’s in labor, 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,” Northam said.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said on the Senate floor Monday evening that Northam’s comments made this “a national conversation, because we thought this was a resolved issue in 2002, but it's not.”

“There's still debate from the other side to say, deliver the child and then decide what to do with the life of that child,” Lankford said.

Lankford allowed that such circumstances are not common. “But it does happen,” he said. “In the case of a botched abortion, the child is delivered and then everyone that's a medical professional just steps back and watches the child die, and doesn't provide care.”

“We need to resolve this in our law,” Lankford said.

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that these situations do not involve babies that survive a botched abortion and have a chance of living. These procedures take place, Schumer said, “when parents learn there is a fatal diagnosis.”

“What happens in those circumstances should be decided between a woman, her family, ministers, priest, rabbi and her doctor,” Schumer said.

Wear, the former Obama faith adviser, said that “politicians are exploiting on both sides.”

“Democrats tell their base that any Republican pro-life bill is disingenuous, not what it really appears to be,” Wear said. “Republicans ignore the stated motivation of Democrats on these issues generally, and impose on them the worst motives possible.”

And in the current political environment, there is clearly no appetite for meeting the other side anywhere near the middle on this issue.

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