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President Donald Trump often weaves his opposition to late-term abortion into his speeches at rallies around the country. His April 27 event in Green Bay, Wis., followed his pattern of twisting the actual practice and circumstances of a rare event.
Trump said he was shocked that Wisconsin’s Democratic governor said he would veto a bill that would punish doctors who don’t try to preserve the life of an infant born alive after an attempted abortion.
"The baby is born," Trump said. "The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby."
This is a distortion.
Cases of late-term abortions, which are uncommon, involve either a pregnancy that poses an immediate threat to the life of the mother, or infants with abnormalities so severe that they are unlikely to live more than a few days. In the even rarer situations when the baby emerges alive, parents would decide whether to ask their doctors to make any and all efforts to keep breathing.
Medical researchers describe this as a decision whether to resuscitate the baby. Trump cast this as a decision whether to execute it.
By practice and law, living infants receive care.
"This is a clear-cut concept that we can all agree upon," Gretchen Ely, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo’s School of Social Work and a board member for Social Workers for Reproductive Justice told us in February. "The notion that anyone supports executing infants after birth is preposterous."
Among other federal and state statutes that already establish the duty to provide care, the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002 established that federal legal protections that applied to "persons" also covered children born at any stage of development, including after an abortion.
Trump has been referring to execution — a word that refers to a legal death penalty — since his State of the Union address in early February. He said it again a few days later in El Paso, Texas. And in March in Grand Rapids, Mich., he attacked Democrats for "allowing children to be ripped from their mother's womb, right up until the moment of birth."
The typical pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks. Data on abortions that take place at the very end of that period are limited. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only reports late abortions after 21 weeks. Those represented 1.4% of all abortions.
In Wisconsin, state health officials found that in 2017, 1% — a total of 53 — abortions took place after the 20th week.
But Trump was talking about situations much later than that.
Less than 1% of abortions occur in the third trimester, or after 28 weeks, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Many of those abortions, the college wrote, involve problems that are "incompatible with life," such as a baby without a brain or organs that form outside the body.
"In these cases, where death is likely before or shortly after birth, patients may decide whether to continue the pregnancy and deliver a nonviable fetus or have an abortion," the college wrote.
Typically, in the face of an infant with severe abnormalities, parents and doctors end up deciding whether to resuscitate the dying baby.
This "is a much more contentious issue," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University Langone Medical Center. "Babies born post-abortion, spontaneous or induced, with horrible and potentially painful conditions incompatible with life, would not be routinely resuscitated or aggressively treated by most medical teams. In fact some would not even know how to try, or lack the technology to do so, especially in rural areas."
Caplan said he is unaware of examples of "medically active killing," and that while "allowing to die does happen," it occurs "very rarely — say, a baby born with no lungs at 20 weeks."
Both sides agree that the active killing of a breathing newborn is — and should be — illegal.
"There is a broad consensus that a child that takes its first breath has crossed a bright line from fetus to child and should be protected by the law," said Teresa S. Collett, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas and director of the university’s Prolife Center.
These types of cases have been prosecuted: In 2013, Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell was sentenced to three life terms for killing a series of late-term newborns in gruesome fashion.
Trump’s speech in Green Bay drew on the words of another governor, Virginia’s Ralph Northam. Northam, a pediatric neurologist said in a January radio interview that when fetuses are nonviable, doctors deliver the baby, keep it comfortable, resuscitate it if the mother wishes, and then have a "discussion" with the mother.
Trump said, with a late-term abortion, "the mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby."
Trump grossly oversimplified of one of the hardest choices parents face. We rate this claim False.
Donald Trump, Rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, April 27, 2019
Wisconsin Legislature, Assembly bill 179, accessed April 29, 2019
CDC, Abortion Surveillance — United States, 2015, Nov. 23, 2018
Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Reported induced abortion in Wisconsin, December 2018
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Facts are Important: Abortion Care Later in Pregnancy is Important to Women’s Health, accessed April 29, 2019
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Tony Evers will veto 'born alive' abortion bill advanced by GOP lawmakers, April 23, 2019
Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002, main bill page
Associated Press, "Philadelphia abortion doctor sentenced to three life terms in jail," May 15, 2013
Donald Trump, Comments at a rally in El Paso, Texas, Feb. 11, 2019 (1:20:25 mark).
Donald Trump, State of the Union address, Feb. 6, 2019 (55:03 mark).
Gov. Ralph Northam, Radio interview on WTOP, Jan. 30, 2019.
Email interview, Teresa S. Collett, law professor at the University of St. Thomas and director of the university’s Prolife Center, Feb. 26, 2019
Email interview, Gretchen Ely, associate professor at the University of Buffalo’s School of Social Work and a board member for Social Workers for Reproductive Justice, Feb. 26, 2019
Interview, Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at New York University Langone Medical Center, April 29, 2019
PolitiFact, Fact-checking Donald Trump's tweet saying Democrats 'don’t mind executing' babies after birth, Feb. 28, 2019
PolitiFact-Virginia, Trump falsely claims Northam said he'd let doctors 'execute' newborns, Feb. 20, 2019
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