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What the Failure of the Sasse Bill Says About Democrats

It's not good.
February 26, 2019
What the Failure of the Sasse Bill Says About Democrats
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Monday evening, nearly every Democrat in the Senate voted to block passage of Sen. Ben Sasse’s Born Alive Infant Survivors Act. The bill’s provisions were simple: In the event that an abortionist botched a late-term job, mistakenly allowing a viable infant to enter the world alive, that abortionist would be required by law to offer the infant whatever medical care he would offer to a comparable baby he had intended to deliver, rather than abort. If the abortionist did no do so, the bill stipulated, he would face potential criminal charges.

Speaking from the Senate floor, Sasse implored his Democratic colleagues not to oppose the bill: “We’re talking about babies who have already been born. Nothing in this bill touches abortion access.” Yet in the end, only three Democrats—Joe Manchin, Bob Casey, and Doug Jones—voted for the bill. Without 60 votes to get cloture, the bill foundered.

In blocking the bill, Democrats seemingly couldn’t decide whether they opposed it because it was meaningless pro-life posturing or because it was a serious attempt to interfere with abortion access.

So, for instance, Sen. Patty Murray said that the bill was meaningless, because “we already have laws against infanticide.” But she also said that it would force women to accept “care that may directly conflict with your wishes at a deeply personal, often incredibly painful moment in your life” and was “government interference in women’s health care.”

Maybe one of those criticisms is accurate. But they can’t both be right.

The Sasse bill came on the heels of a remarkable Marist poll, released Sunday, which suggested that our national hair-splitting over the niceties of infanticide over the last month has had a significant impact on how Americans view the abortion debate. According to the poll, 47 percent of Americans now identify themselves as pro-life—up from 38 percent last month—while pro-choice self ID’s fell from 55 percent to 47 percent.

Is this poll an outlier? Possibly. But it’s also possible that political fights over late-term abortions, first in New York and Virginia, and now in Washington, have caused Americans to recoil at Democrats’ increasingly open agitation for abortion on-demand, at any point during a pregnancy.

For decades, pollsters such as Gallup have consistently found that only about 1 in 10 Americans believe abortion should generally be legal during the third trimester. One presumes that the number who support infanticide in any form would be smaller still.

And yet, Democrats aren’t just doubling down on abortion access, but expanding the scope of their demands. And they’re doing it when the politics of the issue seems to be against them. Why would they do that?

There’s something about our politics which is pushing political actors toward maximalist positions. Where Democrats used to be for controlled legal immigration, they’ve become pro-amnesty for illegal immigrants, and the energy in the party seems to be pushing toward literal open-borders as the ideal.

The same has happened with abortion. Thirty years ago, the pro-choice position was that abortion needed to be safe, legal, and rare. 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.

The failure of the Sasse bill was the clearest sign we’ve had in days that American politics is broken. At some point, you have to imagine that this flight to the fringes will collapse under the weight of its own absurdities. And it’s hard to argue that Monday’s vote—in which a major political party was more fearful of giving their opponents a perceived win than of being seen as pro-infanticide—doesn’t show that we’re very far along that path indeed.

Then again, ten years ago, the possibility that we’d get even this far would have seemed ludicrous. Who can guess what marvels the future yet holds?

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.