Column: ‘Born alive’ abortion debate was really just a political trap

Published 6:58 am Thursday, May 2, 2019

by Colin Campbell

If you value fact-based debate and impactful public policy, the state legislature’s debate over its “born alive abortion survivor” bill week before last was cringeworthy.

The proposal brought the year’s most overheated rhetoric to Raleigh, and the outlandish claims kept the fact-checkers busy.

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But despite the eye-popping statements you heard from politicians, no one actually believes that doctors should let a living, breathing baby die if the mother had initially wanted an abortion. It’s an incredibly rare occurrence with no documented cases in North Carolina. And no one – at least with this particular legislation – is trying to restrict abortion rights.

So what was the point of this? Why stoke people’s fears and passions over one of the most emotional issues in politics? After all, with Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto, the bill is unlikely to become law. And if the issue was truly important to Republicans, they would have passed it last year when they had a veto-proof majority.

The real goal here was to set a clever political trap for Cooper and legislative Democrats. This bill was designed to be uniquely thorny for Democrats.

The GOP was hoping Democrats would oppose the measure as they do with most abortion-related legislation, and the campaign attack ads were ready to roll. It was a perfect set-up to make accusations that Democrats are OK with killing babies.

Hours after Cooper’s veto, his likely 2020 opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, had a slick graphic on Twitter with a photo of a baby. “Elections aren’t usually matters of life and death . . . but sometimes they are,” the caption said, pointing to the veto.

It’s a ludicrous claim, but we live in a hyperpartisan era where many people seriously believe that their political adversaries are evil. And Democrats didn’t have any politically savvy options to avoid the GOP’s trap.

Sure, they could have voted yes while pointing out that the legislation wasn’t necessary and likely wouldn’t apply to real-life scenarios. But that would anger the Democratic base, who would think their leaders were caving in to the anti-abortion lobby.

Many Democrats stuck to the facts: The bill is redundant because existing murder and manslaughter laws would likely be adequate to prosecute the hypothetical bad doctor. That’s what PolitiFact found after talking with legal experts.

But some Democrats decided to ratchet up the rhetoric to rile up their supporters and rake in campaign cash. Why let the Republicans have all the fun?

“BREAKING NEWS: Roy just vetoed the GOP’s bill attacking women’s rights!!” Cooper’s re-election campaign wrote in an email to supporters. Never mind that the bill has no effect on existing abortion rights, as PolitiFact noted, and it specifically exempts mothers from criminal prosecution in the “born alive” scenario.

Not only is the rhetoric false, it serves to divide the Democratic Party. Six legislative Democrats – all minorities, all from socially conservative rural districts – voted yes on the bill. Does the governor’s campaign think they oppose women’s rights?

The “abortion survivor” debate will ultimately impact few, if any, real people, but it’s a distraction from the current legislative action that affects all North Carolinians. Lawmakers are pushing forward a bipartisan bill that could make it easier for Duke Energy to raise your electric bill. And legislative leaders recently introduced a new package of tax cuts that deserves a robust debate.

If we’re truly concerned about North Carolina’s littlest citizens, we’d also be talking about a little-noticed study last week from the National Institute for Early Education Research, which found that state spending on pre-K programs is “not sufficient to maintain the quality of the program,” according to a news report by EducationNC.

Those are just a few of the real issues our state is grappling with. So let’s stop the 2020 political posturing, stick to the facts, and get to work.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Write to him at