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Democrats Are Falling Into a Political Trap on Abortion

Anti-choicers are forcing Democratic candidates to defend supposed ‘birthday abortions’ — a procedure that doesn’t actually exist

Sady Doyle
Apr 19 · 5 min read
Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen the anti-choice movement’s agenda for the 2020 race: making Democrats defend an atrocity that doesn’t actually exist.

At a Fox News town hall last week, moderator Martha MacCallum asked Bernie Sanders, “With regard to abortion, do you believe that a woman should be able to terminate a pregnancy up until the moment of birth?”

Sanders hedged in his response. “It happens very, very rarely,” he said, “and I think that it is being made into a political issue.” A chorus of boos rose from the audience. The next day, National Review declared, “Bernie Sanders Backs Unrestricted Abortion Until Birth.”

The most important part of Sanders’ response — the one that handed victory to the anti-choicers — were the words “it happens.” Because it doesn’t.

Never, in any hospital, has a woman in the throes of labor requested an abortion right as the baby was crowning — let alone received one. (By that point, there are much more efficient ways to end the pregnancy. Like, say, giving birth.) Yet for the past three years, anti-choicers have aggressively promulgated the fiction that such “birthday abortions” (this fake phenomenon even comes with its own nickname) are not only possible, not only likely, but actively embraced by Democrats.

The lie itself seems to date back to the last presidential election. In February 2016, at a Republican primary debate, Marco Rubio said, “Hillary Clinton… believes that all abortions should be legal, even on the due date of that unborn child.” Ted Cruz parroted that claim months later, asserting that the then Democratic front-runner “supports unlimited abortion on demand up until the moment of birth.” Most famously, Donald Trump claimed in a debate with Clinton that “Hillary is saying in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother.” Clinton did a reasonably good job of calling out the lie, telling Trump at the debate “that is not what happens in these cases, and using that kind of scare rhetoric is terribly unfortunate.” Still, the fiction had taken hold.

By the 2019 State of the Union, Trump was claiming that New York legislators “cheered with delight” at “legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” By that time, the lie had proliferated and mutated, growing more grotesque — and with a much later deadline for termination. When Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was foolish enough to entertain the “abortion until birth” question in an interview, his comments about end-of-life care for babies who couldn’t survive outside the womb were forcibly misconstrued as a call for “infanticide.” He said that “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.”

By grossly oversimplifying the conversation, anti-choicers leave Democrats with an impossible (and false) choice: appear decent and humane, or defend reproductive rights.

Northam’s bungled quote has since become part of the regular “abortion until birth” propaganda, and anti-choice groups, like Life Issues Institute, now inform their readers that “legalization of abortion until birth… means if the baby survives the abortion, the parents and doctor can decide whether or not they’ll let the baby live.” And state lawmakers are paying close attention: Just this month, North Carolina’s Senate passed legislation legally barring doctors from murdering said babies.

Again, if a child is already born, killing them is not “abortion.” It is “murder,” which is already illegal in North Carolina, and pretty much everywhere else. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest a wave of doctors are killing newborns at the behest of their mothers.

It’s unlikely the North Carolina law will go into effect; the state has a Democratic governor with the veto power. But that’s beside the point. This law, and the others like it that are bound to follow, is aimed at forcing incriminating votes, which will then be dredged up the next time an election rolls around. In other words, putting a bill saying “child murder is bad” on the table and daring Democrats to vote “no.”

This is also the purpose of the “abortion until birth” propaganda. It forces candidates to issue quotes that can then be cut-and-pasted into “pro-infanticide” attack ads. As we’ve seen from Sanders’ and Northam’s examples, there is no way to engage the question without providing fodder for the right-wing spin machine.

This plan of attack serves several specific policy goals for the right wing. Most obviously, it helps drum up support for term limits on abortions. Before his election, Trump promised to pass a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks, and hinted during his State of the Union address that it would be a priority leading into the 2020 election. This would explain why anti-choicers claim to be worried about abortions at or near the due date, but keep applying the term “late-term abortion” to earlier procedures. By framing “late-term abortion” as a matter of smothering babies in their incubators, they hope to cut off access to a much wider and more complex range of terminations.

By grossly oversimplifying the conversation, anti-choicers leave Democrats with an impossible (and false) choice: appear decent and humane, or defend reproductive rights. The nuances of later abortion (like the fact that, as Northam pointed out, nearly all abortions after 20 weeks involve nonviable fetuses or risk to the mother’s life) are not widely understood, and easy to erase when you can invoke a doctor standing over a newborn with a scalpel. Candidates who try to communicate from a place of nuance are wiped off the map by a media machine set up to misconstrue their quotes and attack them for speaking.

Every Democratic candidate’s media training needs to include some preparation for this attack, which is pernicious precisely because most of the attempts to counter it wind up validating its core premise. The anti-choice movement has invented dozens of falsehoods before this one — “birth control is abortion” and “Planned Parenthood sells baby parts,” for example. It has shown, many times over, that it has at best a casual relationship with the truth, a less than rudimentary grasp of medicine, and an endless store of bad faith. No group that shady should be allowed to make medical decisions for the rest of us — yet anti-choicers seek to control healthcare for half the country’s population. That’s the kind of thing that could actually kill people, and that’s all that voters really need to know.

The only way to respond to “abortion until the moment of birth” or “birthday abortion” questions is to point out that those are imaginary procedures, and that the questioner is acting in bad faith. It is bad strategy to be put on the defensive by a claim that has no basis in reality — and it is an utter waste of time to defend oneself to an enemy dead set on taking one’s words out of context.

Sady Doyle

Written by

Author of “Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why” (Melville House, 2016). Seen at Elle, In These Times, and all across the Internet.