Legal experts: Obama's 'Relevant' abortion comments conflict with own pro-choice views

by Michael Foust, posted Tuesday, July 08, 2008 (11 years ago)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Democrat Barack Obama may have wanted to sound reasonable on the issue of abortion during a recent interview with Relevant Magazine, but legal experts say his statements conflict with both his current positions and his past actions on the issue.

The interview with the Christian magazine has caused a stir in both the pro-choice community -- which has expressed concern about the interview -- and the pro-life community, which has responded by saying Obama is being (to put it mildly) disingenuous.

Obama's positions on abortion are increasingly becoming a target by pro-lifers. One group, the Christian Defense Coalition, is running print ads targeting Obama's support of taxpayer-funded abortion. The ad shows a picture of Obama as Uncle Sam saying, "I Want You To Pay For Abortions!"

But Obama has tried to blunt some of the criticism. He addressed two abortion-related issues during the Relevant interview: one, his position on late-term abortion, and two, his opposition as a state legislator to a bill that would require medical attention be given babies who survive abortions.

On late-term abortions, Obama said, "I have repeatedly said that I think it's entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don't think that 'mental distress' qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions."

The problem, though, is that under Roe v. Wade and its companion decision, Doe v. Bolton, abortion is legal at any stage of pregnancy for any reason, including "mental distress" -- and Obama is on record as supporting both rulings and on record as saying he'd appoint justices to the court who would uphold legalized abortion. The majority in Doe said abortion should be allowed under all circumstances, including "physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age" -- all of which it said "may relate to health."

Obama also is one of 19 co-sponsors of a Senate bill, the Freedom of Choice Act, that essentially would make the language of both Supreme Court cases federal law. The bill states that "[i]t is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman." The bill -- which would overturn every restriction on abortion on both the federal and state level, such as parental notifications -- defines "health" through the lens of Doe.

During a speech last year to Planned Parenthood -- the nation's largest abortion provider -- Obama said the "first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act." He also told the group regarding his backing of legalized abortion, "On this fundamental issue, I will not yield."

"I'd like to hear how Obama can continue to support the federal Freedom of Choice Act, which contains a broad mental health exception by specifically referring to the 1973 Supreme Court case," Jan Crawford Greenburg, a legal analyst for ABC News, wrote on her blog.

The Weekly Standard's John McCormack asked, "Are we really supposed to believe that Obama, the former editor of Harvard Law Review and onetime lecturer at the University of Chicago law school, doesn't understand Roe v. Wade and a bill that he's co-sponsoring?"

Obama later tried to clarify his remarks, telling reporters, "My only point is that in an area like partial-birth abortion having a mental, having a health exception can be defined rigorously. It can be defined through physical health. It can be defined by serious clinical mental health diseases. It is not just a matter of feeling blue. I don't think that's how pro-choice folks have interpreted it. I don't think that's how the courts have interpreted it and I think that's important to emphasize and understand."

Again, though, legal experts say Obama is off the mark. Federal courts indeed have interpreted the mental health exception to include essentially anything. For years, pro-life groups have opposed mental health exceptions, calling them giant loopholes that render anti-abortion laws meaningless.

"Women today don't have to show they are suffering from a 'serious clinical mental health disease' or 'mental illness' before getting an abortion post-viability, as Obama now says is appropriate," Greenburg wrote.

Ramesh Ponnuru, an author and senior editor of National Review, argued that "at best" Obama is "being highly misleading."

"As a result of Roe and Doe, abortion has been effectively legalized at any stage of pregnancy," Ponnuru wrote. "The requirement of a broad health exception is the reason that the number of people prosecuted for committing late-term abortions has been vanishingly small since 1973, even though the vast majority of Americans believe such abortions should be illegal."

National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez jokes that that Obama's goal was to "make your position completely incomprehensible so everyone thinks you could be taking their side."

In his interview with Relevant, Obama also sought to explain his opposition to an Illinois "born-alive infants" bill that would have given legal protections to babies who survive an abortion.

"The other email rumor that's been floating around is that somehow I'm unwilling to see doctors offer life-saving care to children who were born as a result of an induced abortion," he told Relevant. "That's just false.... I did vote against that bill. The reason was that there was already a law in place in Illinois that said that you always have to supply life-saving treatment to any infant under any circumstances, and this bill actually was designed to overturn Roe v. Wade, so I didn't think it was going to pass constitutional muster. Ever since that time, emails have been sent out suggesting that, somehow, I would be in favor of letting an infant die in a hospital because of this particular vote. That's not a fair characterization, and that's not an honest characterization. It defies common sense to think that a hospital wouldn't provide life-saving treatment to an infant that was alive and had a chance of survival."

For more than a year, Obama's opposition to the bill has been widely discussed among pro-life leaders. Here are the facts: As an Illinois state senator, Obama either voted "no" or "present" over a series of months when the born-alive infants bill came to a vote. He also once killed it in a committee he chaired. It's not a stretch to say Obama was the bill's most vocal opponent.

One version of the bill (SB 1082) stated simply, "A live child born as a result of an abortion shall be fully recognized as a human person and accorded immediate protection under the law." It defined a live child as a baby who after "expulsion or extraction" from the mother "breathes or has a beating heart" or has "definite movement of voluntary muscles." Jill Stanek, a nurse, had testified to legislators that babies were surviving abortions and being allowed to die at Christ Hospital in Chicago. In the method, delivery is induced, and the baby is left unattended. Witnessing the procedure changed her so much that she is now a pro-life activist.

The U.S. Senate passed a federal version of the bill by unanimous consent; it clarified that it was not designed to ban abortion. Obama says today he would have voted for the federal bill -- due to the pro-Roe language -- if he had been in the Senate. But as a state legislator, he never sought to add such language to the Illinois bill. Ponnuru calls Obama's claim about the Illinois bill "ridiculous."

"... The born-alive bill was never going to 'overturn Roe,' and the presence or absence of this interpretive clause was never going to make a bit of difference."

Stanek herself also criticized Obama's comments. In her blog she disputed his claim that, when he was a state legislator, Illinois law already required medical attention be given infants who survive abortions. There was no such law, she said.


Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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