Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Democrats Ignore Sasse’s Born-Alive Bill at Their Own Peril

Both sides in the abortion debate could practice more empathy and compassion. But the Democrats are losing potential 2020 voters with their extremism.
February 7, 2019
The Democrats Ignore Sasse’s Born-Alive Bill at Their Own Peril
A 1 pound, 7 ounce baby who survived an abortion attempt in the 23rd week survived on 18th November, 2014 in Chongqing, Sichuan, China. (Photo by TPG/Getty Images)

On Monday, Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) brought to the floor of the Senate his Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, a bill that in more rational times would be passed with unanimous consent. (And, in fact, a similar measure was.) The bill, which is a very short read, simply requires hospitals to provide the same care to infants who are born alive after a botched abortion that they would to anyone else.

The response from Democrats and in most corners of the media has been a deafening silence, opposition through unwillingness to engage. Democratic Senator Parry Murray went to the floor and stayed only as long as was necessary to make the procedural objection and depart. No other Democrats went to the floor for debate.

The aspiring 2020 candidates have ignored the bill, despite their being what feels like dozens of them in the Senate. All are seemingly uninterested in offering even the most modest assurance to pro-life anti-Trumpers that they can be entrusted to not codify infanticide at the federal level should they earn their vote.

Sasse’s bill and the Democratic response offer a window into the state of the larger abortion debate. Despiteor maybe because oftechnological advances that have brought the survival rate up dramatically among infants born as early as 23 or 24 weeks and allowed me to just this week look at a crystal clear ultrasound showing a beautiful baby at just 12 weeks, grassroots progressives have decided that they are cancelling anyone who doesn’t take the most extreme pro-choice position. I know for a fact that Democrats see the same from the pro-lifers. After I critiqued Ralph Northam’s obscene quote saying that born-alive babies “will be kept comfortable” while the parents and doctor convene under Virginia’s now-tabled abortion bill, a friend urged me to read about the real stories of women who are dealt excruciating late-term circumstances, having to terminate nonviable, third-trimester babies and facing sometimes too stringent laws that aren’t flexible to their needs. Their point was well-taken.

Even now, 46 years after the passage of Roe v. Wade, people on both sides of the abortion debate still wrestle with the same questions: When does life begin? When do the baby’s rights get balanced against the mothers? What are the implications for mothers carrying fetuses whom  doctors think are unlikely to live? But in this political environment, very few people are willing to have the difficult conversations and instead resort to an immediate, instinctual tribal response.

The result is often heartlessness on both sides. Sarah Quinlan wrote in these pages last week about how pro-lifers must be better at changing our cultural response to women considering abortion, providing more support for those facing heart-rending circumstances around pregnancies that were either unplanned or going awry.

On the left, meanwhile the lack of empathy manifests itself in increasingly extreme legislation that is among the most radical abortion legislation anywhere in the world. Note the video of people cheering the passage of New York law that’s vague provisions allow for abortion up to the day of the child’s birth so long as an abortion provider (not necessarily a doctor) makes a “reasonable and good faith judgment” that it will protect the mother’s health. It is the type of bill that would have had significant Democratic defections not so long ago.

This extremism creates an environment where someone like Northam, who had a moderate reputation and had even considered becoming a Republican in the not-too-distant past, was compelled to make it sound  as though he were endorsing post-birth infanticide. Some on the left argued that he was taken out of context. I watched the entire video multiple times and he wasn’t. They may have been correct that he was intending to limit the comments to babies who were nonviable or born with severe deformities, but that isn’t what he said. And even if it were it’s rather grotesque to talk about a born-alive baby with “deformities” the same way you would a trout that you may or may not bring home from the fishing trip.

To my ears though, Northam’s comments were simply clumsy pandering. It was reminiscent of Donald Trump telling Chris Matthews he’d support jailing women who had abortions. Both were men who wanted to make their bases happy, gaffing because they were trying to sound like one of them even though the language doesn’t come naturally.

Looking at the Democrats maximalist approach to abortion through a purely political lens, they risk repelling voters disproportionately in the states Democrats need to win the Senate and the Electoral College.

A look at the data shows that Democrats maintain the overwhelming majority position on whether or not to overturn Roe. vs. Wade, which will certainly be a major issue in 2020 with SCOTUS hanging in the balance. But these late term-abortion bills could negate advantage by turning off the plurality of the electorate that does want certain limits on abortion. The most recent Gallup numbers show 50 percent of voters want abortion to be legal in “certain circumstances” while just 29 percent support abortion “on demand” and 18 percent supporting making the practice illegal entirely.

The numbers make it self-evident that many who carry the majority positionthat abortion should be legal but with restrictionsare Democrats, but their voice is stifled in the national debate. The Democrats for Life group that just 20 years ago had more than 40 members in the House is now down to two. Is it really imaginable that there are that few elected Democrats or liberal pundits who have no qualms about late-term abortion? Because there weren’t many to be found in the wake of the New York and Virginia legislation furor. It seems far more likely that they exist, but choose not to say anything out of fear.

It has become somewhat of a running joke on the leftand for good reasonthat Republican voters will use abortion as an excuse to support anyone from white nationalists to child predators to formerly pro-choice buffoons. But the fact that they have a point doesn’t change the political reality. These voters are gettable, but a Democratic nominee in 2020 who can’t support a bill to protect BORN ALIVE BABIES (C’mon!!!) certainly risks pushing a critical number of those into the arms of their dreaded third-party alternative. This group may not end up playing a decisive role in 2020 but they should be discounted at the Democrats peril. After-all according to analysis by Henry Olsen, it was my much-maligned fellow Never Trump Republicans who put Democrats over the top in key house races in 2018.

The biggest reason Martha McSally lost is the same reason Republicans lost control of the House: RINOs. Across the nation, moderate college-educated independents who had frequently backed Republicans in prior elections switched sides. We can see this trend both in the Arizona exit polls and the results reported to date.

Sasse’s bill should be an easy opportunity for Democrats who are planning to run in 2020 to offer an olive branch to these voters, rejecting the negative partisanship and stifling of debate that has infected our public life for a cross-party endorsement of the dignity of life for all.


This abortion debate, particularly in regards to late-term abortion, is fraught and deserves to be conducted with compassion. The joy and innocence and beauty in the possibility of new life is countered by the unimaginable, unbearable pain of a mother facing a wrenching and usually unwanted choice. We can both recognize and support and lift up the women who face it while also ensuring we maintain the child’s humanity and our own. We can, and we need to.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, communications director for Jeb Bush 2016, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee.