The Republican-led House in the United States on Wednesday (11 January) pushed ahead with a trio of new anti-abortion measures.
Republicans first passed a bill that could subject doctors who perform abortions to criminal charges, by requiring them to provide medical care for infants born alive after a failed abortion. Doctors who do not comply can be threatened with up to five years in prison.
But Democrats pointed out that this legislation already exists under federal law - referencing the 2002 Born-Alive Infants Protection Act which mandates that babies who survive attempted abortions receive emergency medical care. This scenario is legislated for then, but according to experts, exceedingly rare, with late-term abortions, (which the new bill primarily concerns), taking place in 1.3% of cases, according to state data.
When they do happen, they typically involve serious fetal abnormalities or risks to the life of the mother. So while Republicans framed the proposed legislation as a way to protect the unborn - and sought to portray opponents as unwilling to provide basic rights to newborns - experts said that the measure is based on misinformation about what is often an extremely painful and unwanted decision to end a pregnancy.
Meanwhile, pro-choice organisations have argued the new bill is simply an effort to discourage women from seeking abortions and penalise doctors for performing them. Other critics suggested anti-abortion lawmakers were using an ‘uncontroversial’ bill to appeal to more conservative voters, whilst avoiding alienating moderates who had spoken out against the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade.
The House also passed a resolution condemning attacks on facilities, groups, and churches that oppose abortion rights. Opponents argued the measure was one-sided, highlighting the fact that it did nothing to condemn violence and harassment at facilities that help women seeking abortions.
Meanwhile, a third measure was passed more quietly - hidden within a wider rule package concerning how the chamber will operate. Here, House Republicans supported regulations that would fast-track consideration of legislation permanently banning the use of federal funding for abortion.
All of the new measures were passed primarily on party lines. The doctor mandate passed 220 to 210, with just one Democrat, Henry Cuellar of Texas, joining the Republicans - while the attack condemnation passed 222 to 209.
It was the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act which prompted the most heated debate, however. Representative Kat Cammack, Republican of Florida, said: “A child who survives an abortion attempt, who is outside the womb, breathing and struggling for life, doesn’t deserve equal protection under the law? That shouldn’t be a controversial position.”
But Jacqueline Ayers, senior vice president of policy and campaigns at Planned Parenthood, suggested the situation was being warped. She commented: “Let’s be clear - doctors are already required to provide appropriate medical care by law. It’s wrong, irresponsible, and dangerous to suggest otherwise.”
Mary Ziegler, a professor specialising in the politics of reproductive health at the University of California Davis School of Law, added that she believed the point of the bill was to make abortion seem universally unacceptable. She told the New York Times that the measure was “little more than a messaging exercise,” as the surgical method typically used to perform an abortion after the first trimester, which is when the vast majority of abortions take place, makes the odds of a live birth negligible.
In the exceedingly rare case in which a baby is born after an attempted late-term abortion, it is unlikely that the infact would survive outside the womb - and has usually come about after doctors induce labour to terminate a nonviable pregnancy. These instances, experts say, should be handled on a case-by-case basis, but under the bill, a doctor helping a woman decide what to do could be threatened with criminal prosecution.
Jerry Nadler, Democrat of New York, raised similar concerns on the floor, reported The Guardian. He said: “The bill directly interferes with a doctor’s medical judgment and dictates a medical standard of care that may not be appropriate in all circumstances, which could, in fact, put infants’ lives at greater risk.”
The minority leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, added: “You come to the floor as part of your march to criminalise abortion care. To impose a nationwide ban. To set into motion government-mandated pregnancies.” He also argued that in their first days in power, Republicans had done “nothing on inflation, nothing on quality of life issues, nothing even on public safety.”
Representative Frederica Wilson, Democrat of Florida, recounted a tragic, personal story of when the 7-month-old fetus in her womb stopped moving and was pronounced dead. Because Roe v Wade had yet to establish abortion rights nationwide, state law barred her doctor from inducing labour - which she said caused the most painful experience of her life.
“The corpse of that child was still within me,” she said. “My body was wretched with pain, weakness and frailty.” Wilson explained she went into labour at eight and a half months, and almost died. “Oh, what pain. Oh, what grief. I beg you, I plead you — we can’t go back.”
Debate surrounding abortion was thrown back into the limelight last summer when the Supreme Court eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion by overturning Roe v Wade. Aware of the growing support for abortion since that decision, some Republicans, particularly those in swing districts, are concerned about the recent focus on the topic.
Nancy Mace, a Republican from South Carolina, told reporters: “We learned nothing from the midterms if this is how we’re going to operate in the first week. Millions of women across the board were angry over overturning Roe v Wade. If you want to make a difference and reduce the number of abortions with a Democratic-controlled Senate, the Number One issue we should be working on is access to birth control.
Highlighting the fact that the bill had little chance of becoming law, Mace said the measure was “tone-deaf” and that Republicans were merely “paying lip-service to life”.
However, for more conservative Republicans, abortion remains a top concern - with many distressed by the backlash to the court’s decision. Their new anti-abortion bills are unlikely to pass through the Senate, but have clearly highlighted that this is a battle many anti-abortion lawmakers are not done fighting.