Ben Sasse
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

For those of us who don’t live inside the right wing media bubble, we might have missed the fact that the hottest thing on conservative websites over the last week has been the lie that Democrats are in favor of executing babies. Of course, Donald Trump has weighed in on several occasions, including on Twitter.

This is all in reference to a vote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought up last week on a bill called the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. As Anna North documented, the vote was specifically designed to allow Republicans to level these charges against Democrats, because it has no chance of passing the House.

As this topic consumed right-wing media, it didn’t get as much attention on the left because it is one of those issues that requires an explanation full of nuance and complexity. While Democrats would need to go into detail to explain their opposition, all Republicans have to do is accuse them of wanting to execute babies. But perhaps it is worth taking a moment to dig a little deeper.

First of all, it is important to note that back in 2002 both houses of Congress unanimously passed the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which was signed by George W. Bush. It guaranteed full legal rights to infants born at any stage of development. Combined with laws against any type of murder, it is already a crime to “execute” an infant. Full stop.

The distinction between the 2002 legislation and the bill authored by Ben Sasse that was voted on last week is that the latter included penalties and jail time for health care practitioners who don’t provide certain medical care.

Specifically, the bill would require that a “health care practitioner present at the time the child is born alive” to “exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child as a reasonably diligent and conscientious health care practitioner would render to any other child born alive at the same gestational age.”

Less that one percent of all abortions are done after 24 weeks, when a fetus becomes viable, and many are performed because the fetus has a fatal condition or the pregnant woman’s life or health is at severe risk. Denise Grady gives us an example of what that might entail.

Dr. Grossman [a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco] said there were painful situations in which the fetus might be at the edge of viability and labor must be induced to save the mother’s life. For instance, a condition called pre-eclampsia, involving high blood pressure and other problems, can kill both mother and fetus, and in most cases the only treatment is to deliver the baby. If it seems unlikely that the baby will survive, the family may choose to provide just comfort care — wrapping and cuddling the baby — and allow the child to die naturally without extreme attempts at resuscitation.

The bill would force doctors to resuscitate such an infant, even if the parents did not want those measures, said Dr. Jennifer Conti, an obstetrician gynecologist who is a fellow of Physicians for Reproductive Health, an advocacy group. Doctors who violated the law would be subject to criminal penalties, as would anyone who saw the violation and failed to report it, she said.

In other words, for an infant that is destined to die, this law would outlaw a “do not resuscitate” order, taking the decision out of the hands of the parents and their doctor. Senator Sasse’s office basically admitted that.

A spokesman for Sasse told us the bill is aimed at “passive” situations in which there’s a “backing away” from providing medical interventions for a baby born alive.

Compare that to the speech Sasse gave just before the vote was taken on his bill.

Mr. President, thank you. In a few minutes, the United States Senate is going to have an opportunity to condemn infanticide.

100 United States Senators are going to have an opportunity to unanimously say the most basic thing imaginable: and that is that it’s wrong to kill a little newborn baby.

Every Senator will have the opportunity to stand for human dignity – to stand for the belief that, in this country, all of us are created equal. Because if that equality means anything, surely it means that infanticide is wrong.

Frankly, this shouldn’t be hard…

That is what we’re talking about here on the floor tonight. We’re not talking about second trimester abortion, we’re not having some big complicated discussion about a mothers reproductive freedom, as important as all those debates are. We’re actually talking about babies that have been born. The only debate on the floor tonight is about infanticide.

Senator Sasse is knowingly drawing an equivalence between a “do not resuscitate” order and infanticide. But the words that turn my stomach came when he said that “this shouldn’t be hard.” One of the reasons why Democrats haven’t defended their vote against this bill very vociferously is that, among the small group of parents who have experienced these circumstances, the decision to not resuscitate was excruciating and difficult to talk about.

But one woman decided to come forward. Dr. Jen Gunter courageously told her story in an op-ed titled “I Didn’t Kill My Baby.” I encourage you to read it. You’ll learn that her decision was so difficult that she had to give up her obstetrics practice afterwards and still avoids hospital exits where she could see new mothers. As she wrote, “some things just break you.” Dr. Gunter was broken by an experience Senator Sasse suggested “shouldn’t be hard.” That is precisely why a man like him has no business dictating her choices.

Democrats who voted against this bill recognize that parents like Dr. Gunter have an excruciating decision to make and think the government has no business telling them what they must do. For that, they are being accused of “cultural extremism” and veering to the left in a way that will hurt their electoral prospects.

From the days of the Southern Strategy to Karl Rove’s attempts to get gay marriage on the ballot in as many states as possible to boost the re-election of George W. Bush in 2004, Republicans have attempted to use so-called “cultural issues” as a wedge to garner votes. None of this has ever been about Democrats moving left. Nowhere should that be more evident than when Republicans attempt to strip the most difficult life-and-death decision away from parents and accuse them of committing infanticide. I can think of nothing more deplorable.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.