President Trump’s latest rant about babies being executed after birth is riling up neonatal nurses, who say he’s twisted the palliative care they provide for the sickest of infants into an anti-abortion rallying cry that could endanger health providers.
Anna Schmidt, who has worked in a neonatal intensive care unit for five years, told the Daily Beast she was livid when she heard about Trump’s comments at a political rally in Wisconsin on Saturday.
“The families that I've worked with, where I've handed them their babies for the first and last time, they don't deserve this kind of thing,” she told The Daily Beast. “They don’t deserve to be vilified or to be called an executioner.”
Trump’s remark was a continuation of his attacks on later abortions, which he describes as “ripp[ing] babies from their mothers’ wombs right up until the moment of birth.” But while abortion providers may be used to such attacks, the president’s latest criticism has rankled a new group of medical professionals—nurses who take care of babies destined to die.
The nurses claim what they do is sensitive, personal, and has absolutely nothing to do with abortion. And they are not happy with the president’s claims.
“When a baby dies in the hospital it’s because something has gone very, very wrong,” said Julia Puler, a NICU nurse from Michigan. “I can’t point to a single case study of a healthy term newborn that was executed in a hospital. And the mere suggestions of that is just utterly bizarre and dangerous and insulting, frankly, for anyone who is a health-care professional.”
Trump’s latest line of attack started in February, when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam—to the delight of conservatives—inaccurately described the effects of a bill expanding access to third-trimester abortions. Asked whether the bill would allow women to get an abortion during childbirth, Northam said infants with “severe deformities” would be delivered and kept comfortable while the family and physicians discussed the best course of treatment.
“The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother,” he explained in a radio interview.
Trump jumped on the statement, tweeting that Democrats supported “executing babies AFTER birth.” He repeated the line at his State of the Union—as a way to “energize his political base” after an unpopular government shutdown, according to the Washington Post—and again at Saturday’s rally.
“The baby is born; the mother meets with the doctor,” he told the crowd. “They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully. Then the doctor and mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.”
Doctors and nurses say Trump’s description is radically wrong. What Northam had described—and what Trump seized on—was not third-trimester abortion but palliative care, in which infants born with severe birth defects are kept comfortable while they are taken off life-sustaining treatment. Such care is provided to families of infants with “life-limiting” conditions, such as severe prematurity or a heart defect, that would require extraordinary interventions to keep them alive.
From the perspective of those in the room, it’s not a decision anyone makes lightly.
“Any time a parent has to make a decision about their baby, you can't imagine what it’s like for them. It's just heartbreaking,” said Amy Carle, a NICU nurse of 22 years. “And for him to so carelessly spout off that babies are getting executed is just disheartening for all these families who have to go through these kinds of choices.”
There are few studies on how many families choose palliative care for their newborns, and why. But when Puler, the NICU nurse from Michigan, tweeted in response to Trump’s comments on Saturday, the thread was flooded with replies from parents who had chosen to seek palliative care. Some wrote of babies born with tumors in their brains who never made a sound. Others wrote of severe disabilities caused by traumatic births. The thread was retweeted more than 50,000 times.
“Thank you for this thread,” one woman tweeted. “As someone who has experienced this, it means the world to me that you (and so many others) serve(ed) on a bereavement team, and that you are combating this sick rhetoric.”
Still, the “executing babies” line has proved popular with Republicans. GOP legislators in at least seven states have introduced so-called “born alive” bills this year, which would impose prison sentences on doctors who don’t provide medical care to infants born after an abortion attempt. Senator Ben Sasse introduced a version in the U.S. February—despite the fact that a 2002 federal law already grants any born-alive infant the rights of a person. (Executing such an infant, of course, is already illegal under infanticide statutes.)
Trump was responding to similar bills at his Wisconsin rally, after governor Tony Evers vowed to veto the state’s “born alive” bill. In fact, despite Trump’s support, no such bill has been signed into law. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed his state’s version of the bill this month, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is reportedly leaning toward doing the same.
But several NICU nurses told The Daily Beast they were concerned that if the bills didn’t pass, Trump’s rhetoric would incite anti-abortion zealots to do something more extreme.
“He's putting my profession in danger, and the doctors and the abortion clinics and all kinds of places,” said Carle, the NICU nurse of 22 years. “He's already spewed enough things that have created violence. This is just another notch in his belt.”