Saturday, October 25, 2008

Obama and Abortion

On August 21 of this year, I wrote a post explaining how Barack Obama is reaching out to pro-life voters. His strategy is to argue that he would reduce the number of abortions by reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and helping women who are considering abortion choose life by providing them with the resources to keep their baby or put it up for adoption. Now that it is two months later and close to the election, I will evaluate this effort.

Obama was successful in getting his abortion position put into the Democratic Party platform. Here is what it says:
The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to comprehensive affordable family planning services and age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions.

The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre- and post-natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.
While this statement may seem non-controversial to most, it is a significant change for the Democratic Party. When Bill Clinton said that he wanted abortion to be "safe, legal, and rare," in the 1992 campaign, he was harshly criticized by the pro-choice movement for suggesting, by including "rare," that it is wrong to have an abortion.

The platform also states, "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." "Regardless of ability to pay," implies support for taxpayer funded abortions--a more controversial position.

At the Saddleback Civil Forum, Obama explained this position by saying, "for me, the goal right now should be, and this is where I think we can find common ground, and by the way I've now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform, is how do we reduce the number of abortions." He made similar point in the 3rd presidential debate when he said,

But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, "We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby."

He also said that, "nobody's pro-abortion" and "it's always a tragic situation."

However, at a townhall meeting in Johnstown, PA, in March, an audience member asked him how do we "stop these abortions." In response, Obama imagined a scenario where one of his daughters would get pregnant as a teen. "I am going to teach them first about values and morals, but if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby. I don't want them punished with an STD at age 16, so it doesn't make sense to not give them information." This response seems to indicate that he would want them to have an abortion, which is not the response one would expect from someone who claims to be personally opposed to abortion. Plus, the notion that a baby that was not planned for would be "punishment" seems like an extreme viewpoint to most, I would think.

At his DNC convention acceptance speech, additionally, Obama only said, "We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country." There was nothing in this speech about helping women who were already pregnant to choose to not have an abortion.

Obama was asked at the Saddleback Civil Forum, "at what point does a baby get human rights?" This is where he gave his now infamous reply, "answering that question with specificity is...above my pay grade." As I pointed out, this reply would have been appropriate if Rick Warren had asked, "when does life begin," and I suspect this is the question Obama came prepared to answer. But since the question was a legal one, not a metaphysical one, a former law professor and US Senator should be prepared to answer the question. Since then, I've been surprised at how few in the media or the campaigns have pointed this out. Everyone in the media, Democrats, and Republicans, are all retelling the story as if Warren asked "when does life begin?" Why is this happening? I think it is in the interest of both sides to assume he was answering the "life begins" question rather than the "human rights" question. For Republicans, they can present Obama as indecisive on the abortion question. For Democrats, it looks silly for Obama to say that a legal question is above his pay grade, so it's better to let everyone think it was the metaphysical question he was answering.

The most controversial aspect of Obama's abortion views have revolved around his votes, or nonvotes, on the Born Alive Bill when he was in the Illinois Senate. The Born Alive Bill would require life saving procedures for abortion survivors. In some late-term abortions, the fetus accidentally becomes seperated from the patient, resulting in a live baby outside its mother's womb. Some hospitals would leave these babies to die rather than provide care. This bill would prevent that practice.

Obama was the chair of the Senate committee that had oversight of this legislation. Different versions of this bill were presented before his committee in 2001, 2002, and 2003. Originally, Obama said that he opposed these bills because they did not contain a provision stating that the bill does not undermine Roe v. Wade. The National Right to Life Committee pointed out that Obama was not being truthful because the 2003 bill contained this provision. Obama then accused the NRLC of "lying." The NRLC, however, was correct. The 2003 bill had an amendment with the exact wording that Obama said he wanted. Obama now takes a different position and argues that he voted against the bill because there was already a law that provided protection for born-alive babies. Pro-lifers correctly argue that this law has no teeth because it only provides protection for viable babies, and the abortion doctor, who has a self-interest in providing a successful abortion, decides viability. How are you going to prosecute a doctor for not providing life-saving care to a viable infant if viability is determined by the same doctor? Obama now supports the Illinois bill that passed in 2005, after he left, with slightly modified language from the 2003 bill, and the federal bill.

For a more thorough discussion of this debate, see Steve Waldman's blog post on Beliefnet, Factcheck, Obama's website, and the National Right to Life Committee's website.

While much of the country has been focused on the economy, Obama's abortion position has stirred quite a bit of controversy in the pro-life community. Two of the intellectual heavyweights in this debate have been Douglas Kmiec and Robert George.

Kmiec is a law professor at Pepperdine University and previously served as legal counsel to presidents Reagan and G. H. W. Bush. He has endorsed Obama and written a book titled, Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question About Barack Obama. The "big question" referenced in the titled is, of course, can a Catholic support a pro-choice candidate? Kmiec also explains his position in an LA Times editorial, where he states:
Some might ask, isn't John McCain, the self-proclaimed "pro-lifer," still a morally superior choice for Catholics? Not necessarily. McCain's commitment, as he stressed in the debate, is to try to reverse Roe vs. Wade. But Republicans have been after this for decades, and the effort has not saved a single child. Even if Roe were reversed -- unlikely, in my judgment -- it merely transfers the question to the states, most of which are not expected to ban abortion. A Catholic serious about preserving life could reasonably find Obama's educational and material assistance to mothers the practical, stronger alternative.
George is professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. Also a Catholic, George takes exception to Kmeic's position. He argues that pro-life arguments in favor of Obama are "spectacularly delusional." George notes that Obama is in favor of government funding of abortion, would sign the Freedom of Choice Act, opposes funding to pro-life centers that provide alternatives to abortion, supports embryonic stem-cell research while voting against funding for alternatives, and would require the destruction of cloned embryos. He also writes:
But on abortion and the industrial creation of embryos for destructive research, there is a profound difference of moral principle, not just prudence. These questions reveal the character and judgment of each man. Barack Obama is deeply committed to the belief that members of an entire class of human beings have no rights that others must respect. Across the spectrum of pro-life concerns for the unborn, he would deny these small and vulnerable members of the human family the basic protection of the laws. Over the next four to eight years, as many as five or even six U.S. Supreme Court justices could retire. Obama enthusiastically supports Roe v. Wade and would appoint judges who would protect that morally and constitutionally disastrous decision and even expand its scope. Indeed, in an interview in Glamour magazine, he made it clear that he would apply a litmus test for Supreme Court nominations: jurists who do not support Roe will not be considered for appointment by Obama. John McCain, by contrast, opposes Roe and would appoint judges likely to overturn it. This would not make abortion illegal, but it would return the issue to the forums of democratic deliberation, where pro-life Americans could engage in a fair debate to persuade fellow citizens that killing the unborn is no way to address the problems of pregnant women in need.
You can also read George's and Yuval Levin's critique of Obama's stated position on the Born Alive Act in the 3rd debate here.

Obama's record at reaching out to pro-life voters is clearly mixed. He has been influential, along with pro-life Democrats, in moving his party more towards the center on abortion. Though some pro-lifers seem hesitant to admit this, there would clearly be some opportunities for pro-lifers to advance some of their goals with an Obama presidency. At the same time, Obama also has a record of being a strong supporter of pro-choice causes, defending and taking stances that are out of step with most of the public's views on abortion.


Brian said...

Great post. I am glad I found your web-site. Hope you guys are doing well.

Fr. Peter Doodes said...

If only the medical profession and the news media would use the expressions 'unborn child' instead of 'fetus' and 'terminating the life of' instead of 'aborting' then perhaps more people would have to look at what their action actually meant.

I once heard someone say "I would look after every aborted baby in the world if I could". I am just grateful to know that He is.

Blessings to you and your family,

Theologian Mom said...

It's hard to know how much of Obama's "reaching out" to the pro-life crowd is mere rhetoric, based on his strong pro-choice record. I think for a lot of indecisive Catholics, it's too little, too late, especially with the vociferous remarks of U.S. bishops on the topic. See Rocco Palmo's blog post where he counts the number of U.S. bishops that have said abortion is the primary issue on which to decide your candidate: