WASHINGTON — Sen. Ben Sasse opened a Tuesday hearing by stressing he wasn’t there to persuade colleagues who support abortion rights to join him at next year’s March For Life.

But the Nebraska Republican said he does hope more Democrats will back his Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act.

“This hearing is about making sure that every newborn baby has a fighting chance — whether she’s born in a labor and delivery ward or whether she’s born in an abortion clinic,” Sasse said.

The Sasse legislation would require “in the case of an abortion or attempted abortion that results in a child born alive,” any health care provider present must act to preserve the life of the child just like any other born alive at the same gestational age. Penalties include up to five years in prison.

Three Senate Democrats supported the legislation when it came up for a vote in the Senate a year ago, but that 53-44 tally was still short of the 60 votes required to break filibusters and advance legislation.

Sasse needs a few more Democrats to cross the aisle in order to move the bill forward.

Backers say the proposal represents critical protections for the most vulnerable. And they describe blocking the bill as de facto support for infanticide.

Critics have rejected that, however, suggesting that the real purpose of the measure is to intimidate health care professionals into refusing to provide abortions. They say the bill is vague and focuses on gestational age, ignoring potentially complicated medical circumstances. They say that infanticide has always been illegal and that if there were any confusion about the matter, a 2002 federal law made clear that infants born alive are considered persons.

Backers of Sasse’s bill say that law is only “definitional” and lacks any enforcement mechanisms or criminal penalties.

Democrats who attended Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee session characterized the proposal as an unnecessary and dangerous intrusion by the federal government. They pointed to opposition from groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which said in a statement that the proposal is not based on medical science.

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“S. 311 uses dangerous rhetoric that undermines the public trust in obstetrician-gynecologists, stigmatizes necessary health care for women and callously disregards the tragedies and difficult decisions women and their families face,” according to the group.

Advocates for both sides testified at Tuesday’s hearing.

Dr. Robin Pierucci, a clinical neonatologist, described the lengths to which providers go to care for tiny babies born extremely premature.

“There is no ethical reason why this medical standard of care should be abandoned for a subgroup of people because they might be less ‘wanted’ than others,” Pierucci said. “Wantedness does not determine humanness.”

On the other side, Erika Christensen described being 30 weeks pregnant when she and her husband learned that fetal growth had stopped and no treatment existed that could turn things around.

Carrying to term would have meant giving birth to a dying baby and endangering her own health, so they opted to terminate the pregnancy.

“Had I sought to end my pregnancy by early induction — and this bill had been law — my doctors could have been required to commence extreme measures on a baby who could never breathe, regardless of the futility of such measures,” Christensen said. “This does not sound like compassion to me.”

Sasse disputed that the bill would require intense medical intervention when it comes to babies who cannot survive.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, thanked Christensen for sharing her story but said her testimony was “neither here nor there on this bill.”

Ernst held up a tiny diaper from the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital and recounted the story of Micah Pickering, a native of Newton, Iowa, born prematurely at 22 weeks.

Micah visited her office a few years later, Ernst said, and spotted a photo of himself hooked up to tubes in the hospital. He pointed to that picture and exclaimed “a baby!”

Ernst said it brought tears to her eyes.

“That is a baby,” Ernst said. “Now, we as a society will be judged on how we handle the most vulnerable in our society whether they’re wanted or not.”

Nebraska and Iowa’s members of Congress

Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH. Email:joseph.morton@owh.com

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