Sometimes President Donald Trump’s lies are so monstrous, so incendiary, so dangerous that a journalist can feel anxious about repeating them. Reporting on lies after all amplifies them – but ignoring them can often be worse because it allows a toxic falsehood to go unchallenged.
At a rally in Wisconsin on Sunday, the president repeated the false and explosive claim that mothers and doctors in the US sometimes “execute” new born babies. He has said similar before when discussing late term abortions, those performed after 24 weeks because of a heart-breaking late stage diagnosis of major foetal abnormalities or serious risks to the mother’s health.
This time, Trump was also mischaracterising a statement made by Wisconsin’s governor Tony Evers, who has said he would veto a Republican-proposed state bill that would impose life sentences on doctors who do not give life-saving medical care to a baby born alive after a failed abortion attempt (never mind that this is an incredibly rare, virtually unheard-of scenario).
“The baby is born. 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 told his supporters in Wisconsin, to boos from the crowd.
This is a horrific lie. The problem isn’t just that it is factually wrong. What he describes does not happen; no one is advocating for the “execution” of newborns. It’s also not just that it is a gross distortion of what actually happens when parents are confronted with the earth-shattering knowledge that their baby will not live for more than a few hours, or perhaps a few days, from birth. As this devastating Twitter thread by a neonatal intensive care unit nurse illustrates, Trump minimises both the suffering of the parents and the efforts made by neonatal doctors and nurses to ease that pain and make seriously ill babies as comfortable as they can be.
The biggest problem is that Trump’s comments coincide with the rise of an extremist anti-abortion movement that has become increasingly unmoored from any rational, facts-based debate and that has escalated its rhetoric to alarming new levels. Earlier this month, Republican lawmakers in Texas proposed a bill that would have made abortion punishable by death. Like Trump’s execution comment, the message is that the quarter of American women who have abortions, the medical professionals who perform them and, by extension, the politicians and campaigners who support women’s reproductive rights, are baby-killers. And what punishment is fit for a baby-killer?
The Trump presidency has already provided an unwanted lesson in how violent rhetoric translates into actual violence. The hate-filled language Trump uses to attack the press, his political opponents, immigrants and other minority groups has helped spur a rise in hate crime in America: mass shootings on newspaper offices and synagogues, assassination attempts against prominent critics of the president, an increase in crimes motivated by racism.
How long can Trump, and anti-abortion extremists, keep on labelling abortion providers as killers before one such doctor gets killed? It’s a question I hope to never be able to answer.