Senate Republicans signaled in a hearing Tuesday that they intend to keep courting abortion opponents on the campaign trail by talking about a bill they say would protect infants born during attempted abortions, legislation that Democrats call redundant.
The parties scheduled dueling hearings over abortion this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on the bill comes the day before a House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee holds its own hearing on Democrats' interest in expanding abortion rights.
President Donald Trump, during his State of the Union speech last week, called upon Congress “to pass legislation finally banning the late-term abortion of babies,” which was juxtaposed with the introduction of one of his guests — a toddler, Ellie Schneider, who was born prematurely at 21 weeks and 6 days.
Two of Trump’s key priorities for Congress are passing this bill and passing legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.
Last February, the Senate fell short, 53-44, of passing this bill after Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was unable to get a unanimous consent request on another nearly identical version of the bill. The procedural motion needed 60 votes for passage.
The 2019 roll call vote primarily fell along party lines with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, opposed. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who also supports abortion rights, did not vote. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Doug Jones of Alabama, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania voted in favor of the bill.
This bill and other legislation tied to restrictions on abortion or expansions of abortion rights face an uphill climb this Congress. Senate Republicans’ narrow majority has prevented them from passing anti-abortion legislation, while House Democrats’ efforts to expand abortion rights are unlikely to be taken up by the Senate.
But both chambers have leveraged their own bills as campaign trail messages, just as they have with next month’s Supreme Court case on a Louisiana abortion law.
The theme in Republican questioning was framing the legislation as a simple measure they say is necessary to protect infants born during attempted abortions. They sought to separate it from the moral debate over abortion.
“I am proudly pro-life, but I am not here to get my pro-abortion rights colleagues to join me at next year’s March for Life,” said Sasse, who chaired Tuesday’s hearing. “That’s not what this hearing is about. This hearing is not about overturning Roe v. Wade . . . . This hearing is about making sure that every newborn baby has a fighting chance whether she’s born in a labor and delivery ward or whether she’s born in an abortion clinic.”
Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah; Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., also doubled down on comments that this bill is about infant health.
“The bill is not about abortion. It is about babies,” said Ernst, who held up a small diaper meant for a premature baby. “The fact of the matter is we are focused on babies."
“I know that abortion is a really divisive issue. It is a divisive issue among Americans. It is a divisive issue among their elective representatives here in the Senate,” said Lee. “But I really do hope, and quite frankly I expect, that we should be able to unite around the premise that every baby born alive should be provided with the same standard of care without regard to whether or not her parents wanted to her to be born alive.”
“It is not only a noble and laudable goal, but it is consistent with who we are as a society to say that any child born in this country will receive medical care,” said Hawley.
Democrats indicated that the Republicans were posturing for political purposes, and that the legislation is unnecessary because it's already illegal to kill babies.
“Let’s be clear. No one here is in favor of infanticide. No one here believes in killing or otherwise harming infants,” said Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii. “This bill is the latest in a decades-long effort by Republicans to take control of women’s bodies and prevent them from exercising their constitutional right to an abortion.”
Hirono and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., also argued it would be more prudent to focus on an issue like infant mortality or maternal mortality and government programs that aid pregnant women.
“Can we take the hot button issues and set them to the side and all agree to focus on infant mortality and maternal mortality? There’s plenty of room for improvement there, starting with the president’s budget,” said Durbin.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., asked National Women’s Law Center President and CEO Fatima Goss Graves about health outcomes.
“Is there any evidence that this bill would improve health outcomes for women and their families?” asked Harris.
“Certainly not,” Goss Graves responded, pointing instead to investing in programs like food assistance, transportation, and housing for pregnant women. “Those are things that would actually improve pregnancy outcomes. This bill is not one of them.”
Erika Christensen, a patient advocate who had an abortion, testified about the tough decision she and her family had to make a few years ago.
“We will never be able to regulate or legislate away bad pregnancy outcomes. What we can control are the laws that punish us for them or force us to make decisions we know are not best for us,” said Christensen. “This bill does not solve a problem. It does not make anyone safer or health care better.”