Michael Gerson: Trump's slander obscures policy debate
WASHINGTON — For a conservative idea, there are few things more dangerous and discrediting than the full-on, smothering embrace of Donald Trump. When he forces himself upon an issue — grabbing it, as it were, by the policy prescription — his approach is familiar. He seizes on a half-heard contention, simplifies it beyond recognition and delivers it with the subtlety and precision of a shotgun blast.
This method is one thing when the topic is building a wall; it is another when accusing opponents of endorsing infanticide. During his April 27 rally in Wisconsin, Trump charged Democrats with generally supporting this test case: "The baby is born. The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby."
This scenario comes under the category of murder, not of wrenching, beginning-of-life ethical choices. It is a completely unfair characterization of views actually held by Democrats. So let me stipulate: Trump's slander obscures rather than enlightens an important policy debate.
If anyone has the right to be angry with the president, it is Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. It is his legislation, the "Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act," that helped provoke the current confrontation. And Sasse is neither simplistic nor irresponsible in pressing his case.
Sasse's bill — recently blocked by Senate Democrats — does precisely what its unwieldy name implies. It deals only with the case of an "abortion or attempted abortion that results in a child born alive." And it does not mandate medical care even in these cases. Instead, it requires doctors to "exercise the same degree of professional skill, care and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child" as they would for "any other child born alive at the same gestational age."
Cases in this category are admittedly tiny in number. The only remotely authoritative figures I have seen come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (by way of FactCheck.Org). In the period from 2003 to 2014, the CDC recorded 143 cases in which children were born alive after attempted abortions. (Because it is sometimes difficult for the CDC to distinguish induced from spontaneous terminations, the overall number is probably a bit higher.) In 2017, for example, Minnesota had three reported cases of attempted abortions that produced infants born alive. In one case, according to the state Department of Health, the infant was given "comfort care" until it died.
The Sasse bill seems designed to operate in this very narrow space. Would it outlaw abortions after 24 weeks (roughly the current line of viability)? No, the legislation has nothing to do with the conditions in which an abortion can be obtained. It covers only infants born alive after an abortion is attempted. Would the legislation force a mother and doctor to give pointless health care to an infant born at 21 weeks? No, it covers cases where abortion is attempted, not tragic cases of loss on the edge of viability. And even in these cases, the bill would not require pointless treatment, only the treatment that would be standard for other infants at the same stage of development.
Would this legislation cover the test case of a child with non-life-threatening "genetic anomalies" delivered live at 24 weeks in the aftermath of a failed abortion attempt? You bet it would. After birth, such anomalies are called disabilities. And we don't kill disabled people just because they are very young.
Senate Democrats have two objections to the Sasse bill: one relatively strong, the other dangerously weak.
The stronger argument is that existing federal and state law already covers almost all such cases. The infamous abortionist Dr. Kermit Gosnell, after all, was already tried and convicted as a child killer under Pennsylvania law.
The weaker objection — which is not quite consistent with the first — is that Sasse's legislation would be too intrusive in difficult matters of life and death on the ethical borderlines, forcing the provision of health care in hopeless cases. This would be horrible if true. But it isn't. The bill only requires that infants born alive after an attempted abortion be treated in the same way as other infants. Why? Because infants should not be allowed to die only because they are unwanted. Their value is inherent.
Members of a political party not dominated by a heedless demagogue would be able to argue this. Members of a political party not dominated by pro-choice interest groups would be able to consider this. As it is, the facts have no place to stand.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Washington Post Writers Group