Republican Robert Burns won his congressional primary in New Hampshire Tuesday as the more conservative choice to take on Rep. Annie Kuster (D) this fall. He called himself “the only pro-Trump, unapologetic conservative” and ran on issues like opposition to gun control and the teaching of critical race theory.
Burns also weighed in on abortion, saying he’d wanted to see the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade but indicating that he was grudgingly fine with allowing the procedure up to 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“Having Roe v. Wade is not necessary. Fifteen weeks is more than enough. And with modern contraception, the amount of people, after that point, (needing abortions) is microscopic,” he told local news station WMUR in December 2021.
“I’m for reversing Roe V. Wade, but I’m not for restricting birth control,” Burns added, “and there should be a system in which, when you have a life-threatening situation, it’s a heartbeat for a heartbeat – I don’t believe a mother should die because of that.”
But in July 2018, Burns was far more hard-lline on abortion, stating: “I’m 100% pro-life from conception.”
In an interview on a public access television program with state Sen. Kevin Avard (R), Burns also said he supported exceptions to an abortion ban when the life of the mother is at risk — and proposed that a panel would get to decide whether a pregnant person had a legitimate reason to get an abortion.
Here are his comments from 2018:
Host: When you say you’re pro-life, what do you mean?
Burns: I’m 100% pro-life from conception.
Host: OK. How about in the life of the defense of the mother?
Burns: The life of the – well, the problem is, when we start using “life of the mother” ― you know, “life of the mother” absolutely has to mean – and I’ve talked about this before – you need a panel to look at it. Not because like, “my life is going to change” or “psychologically, I can’t handle that.” Because this is what they try to put in there.
Absolutely, there’s a few cases where, in fact, it is life or death: a woman comes down with cancer and she can’t get chemotherapy without having an abortion, or what have you. In those cases, I believe we would need a panel in this sort of situation. And we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. We haven’t totally gained control of the Supreme Court yet, but in those cases, then I would say yes, you know, you’re trading a life for a life. You can’t say that you’re pro-life but one life is worth more than the other life.
Burns’ campaign did not return a request for comment about those remarks.
There are more than a “few cases” where an abortion could help save the life of a mother. And Burns didn’t elaborate on his idea of forming a “panel” to determine whether a woman deserves access to a procedure that could save her life. Who would be on the panel? Who would choose the members? How long would the panel take to deliberate? Would there be any appeal process?
Right now, doctors, who recognize that abortion should be an option, have their hands tied because the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and many states have enacted laws banning the procedure. Many doctors are nervous to recommend what they see as the best treatment for their patients because of the legal risk.
According to The New York Times, some panels are already materializing — to the detriment of the health of these pregnant patients. Some hospitals have “enlisted special panels of doctors and lawyers to decide when a pregnancy can be prematurely ended. Others have required multiple doctors to sign off on any such decision and document in detail why an abortion was necessary,” the Times reported.
“It’s like you bring lots of people to the top of a high rise and push them to the edge and then catch them before they fall,” Dr. Alireza A. Shamshirsaz, an obstetrician and fetal surgeon who practiced in Houston until recently, told the Times. “It’s a very dangerous way of practicing. All of us know some of them will die.”
In a statement, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee directly compared Burns’ proposal to the “death panels” infamously dreamed up by former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
“Bob Burns doesn’t think women or their doctors should make health care decisions – instead, he is proposing an actual death panel to decide if a woman’s life should be saved. It’s disgusting and disqualifying,” DCCC spokesman James Singer said.
Palin’s potent 2009 talking point, in which she claimed the Affordable Care Act would lead to “death panels” of bureaucrats deciding whether people were worthy of care, caught on despite being a myth.
Burns’ 2018 proposal, however, actually involved panels of people deciding whether a woman deserved to have a procedure that could save her life.
Some Republicans who back strict prohibitions on abortion nevertheless try to appear compassionate — and perhaps more politically palatable — by allowing limited exceptions to abortion bans when pregnancies result from rape, incest or threaten the life of the mother.
But these exceptions are very rare and often hard to secure. Guidelines for receiving an exception can be vague and difficult to justify. For example, what happens if a person has cardiac disease — the leading cause of death in pregnant women — in which the risk of dying could be around 20% or 30%. Should that person be allowed to consider an abortion?
“Is that enough of a chance [of death], or does it have to be more? I hate to even put it like that,” Dr. Lisa Harris, a Michigan OBGYN, told Michigan Public Radio in May. “But is that enough of a chance of dying that that person would qualify under Michigan’s ban for a life-saving abortion? Or would their risk of dying need to be 50% or 100%? And so those kinds of things are very unclear.”
The Guttmacher Institute has also warned against focusing too much on abortion ban exceptions because it pits “good” abortions against “bad” ones. The reproductive rights organization says the best way to make sure pregnant people get the help they need is by “removing abortion bans and restrictions entirely.”
Burns defeated Keene Mayor George Hansel, who described himself as a supporter of abortion rights, in the GOP primary, benefiting in part from a Democratic group’s campaign to boost his profile. Hansel had the endorsement of popular New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R).
The Democratic incumbent, Kuster, represents New Hampshire’s 2nd District, which covers mostly the western half of the state and became more Democratic after redistricting in 2020. President Joe Biden would have won her seat by roughly nine percentage points, but she could be vulnerable if the political environment turns back toward the GOP.
Kuster, who has held the seat since 2013, is making the protection of abortion rights a major part of her message. Her first general election campaign ad, released on Thursday, attacks Burns for wanting to “criminalize abortion, even for victims of rape and incest.”
“I’m the only candidate who will protect the right to an abortion,” Kuster says in a 30-second ad that notes her endorsement from Planned Parenthood’s political arm. “I’ll defend our personal freedoms.”
Correction: This story originally misstated the name of the Keene mayor Burns defeated as Ken, rather than George.
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