Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act Debate Reignites

House leadership aims to ensure legal protections for surviving infants, despite staunch opposition from all but three Democrats.

United States Capitol building.
United States Capitol building. (photo: Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — A debate has been reignited in Congress and various state legislatures over legal protections for infants born alive after a failed abortion attempt. After a measure from Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb., failed in the Senate, Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., is trying to keep the issue alive in the House by leading a “discharge petition” to bypass Democratic leadership and bring the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to a vote after Republicans have been blocked in their direct attempts to do so 32 times.

The measure requires that doctors use “the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health” of a child born alive after an abortion attempt as “any other child born alive at the same gestational age” and ensure the child “is immediately transported and admitted to a hospital.” It adds that any intentional action or attempt to kill a child born alive will be met with the same criminal penalties for “intentionally killing or attempting to kill a human being.”

Along with the effort underway in Congress, similar legislation is being promoted at the state level. Nine states have introduced versions of the Born-Alive measure, and it most recently passed the Texas House of Representatives and the North Carolina Legislature; however, Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the North Carolina bill on April 18.

Tom Shakely, chief engagement officer at Americans United for Life, linked remarks by Democrat Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to this recent push to ensure legal protections for newborns despite opposition from Democrats.

Northam said in an interview that after an abortion attempt where the mother was in labor, 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.”

“Governor Ralph Northam unintentionally revealed what is at stake in the debate over abortion for survivors of abortion, which is why life-affirming states are doing what they can on the state level to protect human life," Shakely said.


Democrats Backing the House Petition

Just three House Democrats have signed the discharge petition to bring the Born-Alive measure to a vote: U.S. Representatives Dan Lipinski (Illinois), Collin Peterson (Minnesota) and freshman Ben McAdams (Utah).

Lipinski told Roll Call that the issue was “important enough” to him to sign the petition and added that supporting the bill “should be a simple choice.” He and Peterson are both longtime pro-life advocates. Lipinski told the Register in January that his party has become very hostile toward pro-lifers and correctly predicted that attempts to challenge him over the issue would continue. “They need to stop pushing pro-life Democrats out of the party,” he said at the time.

Pro-abortion Democrat Marie Newman announced Tuesday that she will challenge Lipinski once again, in a March 2020 primary; he narrowly defeated her last year.

McAdams, who defeated former U.S. Representative Mia Love, R-Utah, last year, was the only Democrat who was not a co-sponsor of the legislation to cross the aisle and sign the petition. He described himself on the campaign trail as someone who “believes in the sanctity of life at all stages.”

“The Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act requires a health care practitioner to take specific steps to care for an infant who survives an abortion or an attempted abortion,” McAdams said in an emailed statement to Utah Policy about signing the petition. “I support the discharge petition to have the important debate on this legislation.”

Another pro-life Democrat, U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, co-sponsored the measure but has declined to sign the discharge petition, claiming he doesn’t want to “change the procedures,” in reference to the House majority’s control.

Cuellar gave his reasons for co-sponsoring the measure in an emailed statement to the Register but did not respond to further questions about declining to sign the petition.

“I co-sponsored the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act because I believe that every life is worth fighting for,” he said. “I support and will continue supporting legislation that takes steps to actively keep our children safe and healthy.”

Democratic Representatives Matt Cartwright (Pennsylvania) and James Langevin (Rhode Island) both voted for the Born-Alive bill last year, when it passed the then GOP-controlled House. They did not respond to requests for comment from the Register on whether they planned to sign the discharge petition.


Abortion Lobby’s Influence

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told the Register that the fact that only three of the 235 Democrats in the House of Representatives have signed the petition shows the influence of the abortion lobby on the Democratic Party.

“The reason many Democrats have not signed the discharge petition is absolutely due to the abortion lobby's stranglehold over the Democratic Party,” she said, arguing that House Democrats are “listening to the abortion lobby’s talking points, which have nothing to do with the bill itself.”

Day added that if Democrats read the text of the measure, they would realize it was in line with their party’s values.

“We encourage members and their staffs to read the bill text, which simply says that unwanted babies who survive an abortion attempt should receive health care,” she emphasized. “Opposing the bill contradicts the ideals of the Democratic Party that has advocated for health care for all and particularly saying ‘health care is a right for all, not a privilege for a few.’" 

One argument that Democrats have been making when asked about their opposition to the bill has been that the legislation is unnecessary. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., a 2020 presidential hopeful, used that argument on the campaign trail, acknowledging that the measure has “caused a lot of controversy.”

“People from a lot of church communities that I frequent say to me: ‘Did you vote against this thing that allows us to kill babies when they’re born?’” Booker said in a recent town hall in Iowa. “And I’m like, that is a felony; that is a crime, and that cannot happen under any law.”


Strengthening Existing Law

Lauren Fine, a spokeswoman for Minority Whip Scalise, replied to the claim that the legislation is unnecessary in a statement to the Register. She explained how Scalise’s measure builds on the existing law, the 2002 Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which mandates full legal rights for infants “born alive at any stage of development.”

“The 2002 bill clarifies that an infant born alive from a failed abortion is a legal person for all purposes under the law,” she explained. “However, the law did not create additional protections for children who survive an abortion.”

“This legislation builds upon the 2002 law by making clear that, in the case of an attempted abortion that results in a child born alive, the abortionist must 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; and ensure that the child born alive is immediately transported and admitted to a hospital.’”

Fine pointed to the stories of abortion survivors like Melissa Ohden and Gianna Jessen, arguing that “federal protections are necessary to save other abortion survivors because the extreme abortion law in the U.S. (which allows abortion until the moment of birth) makes unborn children uniquely vulnerable.” 

She also encouraged Democrats to look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers showing that between the years of 2003 and 2014 “at least 143 babies died after being born alive from a failed abortion,” adding that “these are only the reported numbers. This number also does not include babies who survived abortions.” 


An Abortion Survivor’s Perspective

Claire Culwell is an abortion survivor who has spoken on Capitol Hill and in Texas about the importance of the measure. She told the Register that at the age of 13 her mother had an abortion but then discovered that she had been pregnant with twins. Culwell was the twin who survived the procedure.

“If they had known, obviously, they would have successfully aborted me,” she emphasized. “The only reason that possibly I was given medical care is because I was born at a hospital weeks after the failed abortion procedure.”

She argued that the born-alive measure “is so black and white — we shouldn’t even be having this debate, but we’re having it because women and the pro-choice side feel that acknowledging the humanity of the unborn baby through the abortion survivor forces people who support abortion to acknowledge the humanity of that unborn baby.”

Culwell applauded Democrats who are “going against everything that they’re being told by their party to not support this bill,” saying that those in Congress who have signed the petition are “speaking up for all women in our country, including little babies that survive abortions.”

Lauretta Brown is a Register staff writer.