Obama Faces New Criticism on Abortion

( [email protected] ) Aug 27, 2008 11:27 AM EDT
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Painted during the Democratic primary as weak on abortion rights, Barack Obama is now being portrayed by opponents of abortion as an extremist who literally supports killing babies.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. and his wife Michelle Obama, leave a restaurant in Chicago, Friday, Aug. 22, 2008, after dinner. (Photo: AP Images / Alex Brandon)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Painted during the Democratic primary as weak on abortion rights, Barack Obama is now being portrayed by opponents of abortion as an extremist who literally supports killing babies.

Both portraits are based on his handling of a related issue in the Illinois Senate, and Obama insists they distort his position.

The Democratic presidential candidate says he firmly supports a woman's right to choose but can accept some restrictions — including a requirement that medical care be provided for any fetus that survives an abortion.

"For people to suggest that I and the Illinois Medical Society, so Illinois' doctors, were somehow in favor of withholding lifesaving support from an infant born alive is ridiculous," he recently told the Christian Broadcasting Network. "It defies common sense and it defies imagination."

But as a state senator, Obama repeatedly voted against that requirement and other restrictions on what opponents label "born alive" abortions. Obama says he opposed it because of technical language that might have interfered with a woman's right to choose and because Illinois law already required medical care in such situations.

Hillary Rodham Clinton argued during the primary that Obama hadn't been vocal enough in his opposition to this and other abortion legislation, and questioned his commitment to protecting women's access to abortion.

Abortion opponents say Obama's position amounts to an endorsement of killing babies, and that he has lied about it.

"Barack Obama is so radically pro-abortion he supports infanticide," Jill Stanek, an Illinois nurse and anti-abortion activist, wrote on her Web site.

"Justifying the killing of newborn babies is deeply troubling," former Sen. Rick Santorum wrote in a column early this year.

Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor called such statements "distortions and lies."

"The suggestion that Obama — the proud father of two little girls — and others who opposed these bills supported infanticide is deeply offensive and insulting," Vietor said in a statement Tuesday.

The dispute revolves around what happens in rare circumstances when a fetus survives an abortion.

Illinois abortion opponents repeatedly tried to pass laws defining any fetus that survives an abortion as a person with full rights, requiring a second doctor be present to provide medical care and creating a right to sue on behalf of the infant.

They argued the U.S. Senate had voted 98-0 for a federal Born Alive Infant Protection Act that defined such a fetus as a person, so Illinois lawmakers should have no trouble doing the same thing. President Bush signed the legislation in 2002.

Abortion rights supporters, led by Obama, opposed the Illinois legislation, arguing that it was designed to interfere with abortion. They said doctors were already required to care for any fetus that might survive an abortion; abortion opponents dispute that.

Over the years, Obama repeatedly has said the Illinois measure was different from the federal version in a key way — it lacked language spelling out that it would not interfere with abortion rights. If the Illinois legislation had that provision, he said, he would have backed it.

Now, however, abortion opponents have pointed out that Obama opposed a version of the bill that included a "neutrality clause." The bill was killed in 2003 by a state Senate committee Obama chaired.

"He needs to explain misleading people. He needs to explain why he apparently covered that up," Stanek said.

The Obama campaign's explanation is that even if the federal and state versions had identical language, they would have very different consequences.

The federal government doesn't have a law regulating abortion, so Congress could pass a "born alive" measure without actually affecting anything. But Illinois has an abortion law that would be muddled by changing the definition of a person with full rights, the campaign says.

Pam Sutherland, president of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, backs Obama's position. The federal law essentially does nothing, she said, but the same language in Illinois would complicate state abortion laws.

Sutherland noted that Illinois eventually adopted a version of the "born alive" law but only after including a section that specifically states abortion rules would not be affected.

"They're being very dishonest about their depiction of what happened with that bill — or just clueless," she said of abortion opponents.

Sutherland also scoffed at the idea that opposing the legislation is the equivalent of supporting infanticide. "It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous," she said.

Now focused on the general election, Obama wants to show that he may disagree with abortion opponents, but understands and respects their views.

The Democratic Party platform is being revised to bolster the section on reducing the need for abortion. The version awaiting approval at the Democratic convention in Denver says the party supports efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancies and understands the need to help women who choose to have children.

Democratic officials also gave a convention speaking slot to Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., who opposes abortion rights.