The “Born Alive” Myth: Tale Turned Political Tool

Kathleen Reeves

The myth of the born-alive fetus has long been a weapon in the pro-life arsenal, one "kept alive" by misleading language, and by efforts to pass laws that further obfuscate and mislead.

Mediabistro quotes a particularly shocking moment of Kate Harding’s account of Law & Order’s disturbing abortion “debate.” During the trial of the killer of a late-term abortion doctor, a nurse testifies that the slain doctor

once (or was it only once?) botched a late-term abortion, causing the woman to go into labor and deliver a live baby. So, as any good abortion provider would, he asked the accidental mother if he should "finish the job" and then stabbed the live baby in the head with a pair of scissors. We learn this from the nurse who attended the homicide, then subsequently left the clinic and went to work in a neo-natal unit at a hospital, symbolically converted to the pro-life cause. No one representing the New York criminal justice system ever thinks to ask this nurse why she didn’t, you know, report the murder she witnessed. The important thing, obviously, is that the experience changed her heart.

The myth of the born-alive fetus has long been a weapon in the pro-life arsenal. Earlier this year, the South Carolina State House passed a “born alive” bill, requiring that in the case of a botched abortion in which a baby is born alive, every effort must be made to keep the baby alive.Of course, abortions are nearly always performed on fetuses that could not be born because they’re not even close to being alive. And if a (very) late-term abortion goes wrong, and somehow birth happens instead, doctors are already required to care for the newborn.

You see, for OB/GYNs, the boundaries are clear. A baby is a baby, and a fetus is a fetus. The anti-choice movement wants to argue that this isn’t the case—hence the use of words like “genocide” and “baby-killer.” As of The Curvature points out, the unnecessary and redundant bill was part of an effort to fortify negative associations about the abortion procedure, women who have it, and doctors who perform it. The bill legitimizes the myth of the baby-killing doctor and seizes upon a fictional abortion scenario to imply that, even if the abortion is first-trimester and the fetus is palm-sized, it’s a slippery slope from abortion to murder. And the kind of people involved with abortion—doctors, women, activists—are so morally reprehensible that they can’t be trusted to observe the boundaries between a legal medical procedure and a crime.

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“Born alive” bills are also a way for anti-choice legislators to gang up on their pro-choice colleagues by reframing the debate as “pro-baby” vs. “anti-baby.” (It’s similar to the way that a legislator who votes to change a draconian drug sentencing law is accused of being a friend to drug dealers.) When Obama voted against Illinois’s Born Alive Infant Protection Act as a state senator, it was incoherently used against him during the Presidential campaign—one of Jill Stanek’s claims was that Obama believed that a woman “alone should decide whether her baby lives or dies.” Women do not have that right in the United States, and Obama certainly didn’t think they should. But the substitution of “baby” for “fetus” in the debate over born-alive bills is just another way for opponents of abortion to derail the abortion debate by blurring the lines between abortion and infanticide.

In short, these bills bring the gruesome allegations of the pro-life fringe into mainstream political debate. And now, thanks to Law & Order, into mainstream TV.

Last Friday’s episode gives troubling credence to the argument favored by defenders of abortion-doctor killers, in what Harding calls “ the moral of this episode”:

The question of whether it’s morally correct to kill a living human being just for doing his job actually cannot be separated from the question of whether it’s morally correct to terminate a pregnancy!

Taking on the ethics of abortion in a television series is great—but the ridiculous “born alive” tale of the baby-stabbing doctor has nothing to do with the ethics of abortion.

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