On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set up votes for a 20-week ban on abortions and a bill known as the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Act.” While neither are expected to hit the 60-vote threshold they’d need to pass, the vote on the “Born-Alive” bill is red meat for conservatives — and the legions of anti-abortion voters they’re hoping to galvanize ahead of the 2020 elections.
What does the bill do?
Depends on who you ask. Supporters say that the bill isn’t really about restricting abortion. It’s about saving newborns’ lives.
“It makes sure that a baby that is born alive during a botched abortion would be given the same level of medical care that would be provided to any other baby at the same gestational age,” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said during a Senate committee hearing on the bill on Tuesday. Sasse, a Republican, has sponsored the bill in both 2017 and 2019.
After doctors care for that baby, they’d be required to transport and admit it to a hospital. Failing to do so could result in fines and up to five years in prison.
Are babies often born after failed attempts at abortions?
No. But there are situations where, due to a medical emergency or fetal anomalies, a woman must deliver an infant who will not live long past birth. That woman, in consultation with her doctors, might then choose to let the infant pass naturally.
“I think sometimes we are conflating things that happen in end-of-life care for babies that have very poor prognoses,” Dr. Kristyn Brandi, an OB-GYN and assistant professor at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School, told VICE News in an interview last year.
Fetuses generally become viable — that is, able to survive outside the womb — at around 24 weeks of pregnancy. Only a tiny fraction of abortions ever take place that late: Nationwide, about 1.3% of abortions are performed during or after 21 weeks of pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Abortion opponents often refer to these procedures as “late-term abortions.” This is not medically accurate; doctors will refer to a pregnancy as “late-term” only if it continues past a woman’s due date.)
There are exceedingly rare situations where infants show signs of life after attempted abortions. Between 2003 and 2014, the CDC noted 143 deaths involving infants born alive during failed abortions, according to the Associated Press.
A 2018 Congressional Research Service paper reported that there isn’t good data on how many later abortions occur because of medical reasons. However, physicians and reproductive health groups say that, anecdotally, these procedures often occur because the fetus has a devastating medical condition. And they say that the “Born-Alive” bill will ruin families’ ability to navigate those complex, fraught situations.
“It would deny families the ability to decide for themselves how they would like to spend the last moments with their dying child,” Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, told the chamber during Tuesday’s hearing. “Instead, the legislation could require the baby to be taken out of parents’ arms in the last hours and days of life and given futile medical treatment that goes against a decision they made.”
While Sasse said that bill enshrines protections for newborns in federal law, abortion rights supporters point out that infanticide is already illegal. Instead, the bill would penalize physicians — who, according to Goss Graves, may then be afraid to help pregnant patients.