The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and Republicans are trying to paint Democrats as radical on abortion

Activists, politicians and other supporters of Planned Parenthood demonstrate Monday outside New York City Hall against the Trump administration's proposed Title X rule change. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Republicans have long used their party’s opposition to abortion as a rallying cry and a way to turn out voters. Now, they seem to be gearing up to make abortion a core issue in the 2020 race.

A key component of that strategy: painting Democrats as radical baby-killers.

This week, Senate Republicans advocated a bill that seemed designed to do just that.

On Monday, all but three Democrats voted against a procedural motion that would have allowed the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act to advance to the Senate floor for a full vote. The bill would require health-care practitioners to “exercise the same degree of professional skill, care, and diligence to preserve the life and health of the child” as he or she would to “any other child born alive at the same gestational age,” my colleagues explained. It included criminal penalties for medical professionals who violated the law, along with a right of civil action.

Democrats argued that the measure was an “unjustified attack” on abortion rights, an overbroad effort to curtail doctors’ rights.

But top Republicans used the bill’s broad, innocuous-sounding language to label Democrats as out of step with most Americans on the issue. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) described the measure as “a straightforward piece of legislation to protect newborn babies.” Democrats “seem to be suggesting that newborn babies’ right to life may be contingent on the circumstances surrounding their birth,” he said.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) went so far as to suggest that a vote against the bill was a vote in favor of infanticide.

That’s how Republican talking heads framed it, too.

“Thirty years ago, the pro-choice position was that abortion needed to be safe, legal, and rare,” Andrew Egger wrote Tuesday in the right-leaning Bulwark. “We went from that to a Democratic party that stood in favor of partial-birth abortion as a matter of principle. And then to the Shout Your Abortion movement. And now to a party that cannot even muster the will to discern between abortion and literal infanticide.”

Republicans have tried to do the same with measures making their way through state legislatures.

For example, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) found himself in hot water after he appeared to suggest that doctors could “abort” infants even after birth.

In a WTOP interview, Northam said doctors could perform late-term abortion “in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s not viable. So in this particular example, if a mother’s in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen.”

Northam, a pediatric neurologist, went on to note: “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.”

Conservatives were quick to jump.

Republicans also painted the Democratic-controlled New York state legislature’s new abortion law as “an extreme position” staked out by the “radical left.”

In reality, the measure allows abortions within 24 weeks of the start of a pregnancy “or at any time when necessary to protect a woman’s life or health.” “There is nothing radical about this bill. The decision about whether to have an abortion is deeply personal,” said state Sen. Liz Krueger, the Manhattan Democrat who sponsored the bill in the Senate, according to the Buffalo News.

President Trump also has seized on this. In his State of the Union speech, he said:

“There could be no greater contrast to the beautiful image of a mother holding her infant child than the chilling displays our nation saw in recent days. Lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth. These are living, feeling, beautiful babies who will never get the chance to share their love and dreams with the world. And then we had the case of the governor of Virginia, where he basically stated he would execute a baby after birth.”

Trump’s speech did not acknowledge that “late-term abortions” are very rare. Instead, he looked to capitalize on their unpopularity. That will probably work in the president’s favor in 2020, especially with white evangelicals who see abortion as a core issue.