Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Presidential Campaign and The Sanctity of Human Life: The Differences Become Ever More Clear

When Senator Barack Obama addressed the question of human life and abortion back during the presidential primaries at the Compassion Forum in April, he said that there is “a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down.” Those Catholics who wanted to support the Obama candidacy viewed this language in hopeful terms as signaling a new openness to the message of life, in contrast with the rigidly pro-abortion substance and style of past Democratic presidential campaigns. Please be assured, we were told, despite his unwavering pro-choice record as a state legislator and United States Senator, Obama was not your typical abortion rights extremist. He is someone who will not ignore or despise our witness for life.

During the past week, however, three episodes have unfolded that have begun to clear the air on the sanctity of human life question, as well as cast a more penetrating light on Senator Obama’s commitment to unfettered abortion rights and his genuine attitude toward the pro-life movement. When Obama is pulled away from the glittering generalities of his campaign for “change” and his studied rhetoric in large public forums, he inadvertently may have shown a disdain for the pro-life movement and a lack of candor about his own public record on abortion. Most importantly, we have learned that when Obama was in a position of power and making official decisions, well before he had moved into campaign mode, he had gravitated toward the most extreme position on abortion.

First, over this past weekend, the presumptive presidential nominees appeared right after one another on the same stage at the Saddleback Church Forum. In that exchange, we saw the clearest of differences between the candidates on the question of human rights for infants and abortion.

Senator McCain was direct, did not waffle, and made no attempt to play both sides of the fence. When asked “at what point is a baby entitled to human rights,” McCain said forthrightly “at the moment of conception.” McCain pointed to his pro-life voting record and concluded: “And as President of the United States, I will be a pro life president and this presidency will have pro life policies. That’s my commitment. That’s my commitment to you.” As moderator Rick Warren aptly responded, “Okay, we don’t have to go longer on that one.”

By contrast, Obama responded to the same question by saying that “one thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is there is a moral and ethical content to this issue. So I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue I think is not paying attention.” Obama had said almost exactly the same thing back in April at the Compassion Forum. In the ensuing months has there really been anyone who has publicly tried “to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue?” (Even NARAL and Planned Parenthood have been pulled back publicly on this point.) To whom is Obama supposed to be responding? What is this statement supposed to mean? What difference would it make in the policy-making councils of an Obama administration? Any hint by this language that Obama is genuinely open to the witness for unborn human life was negated only seconds later when Obama proclaimed “I am pro-choice” and “I believe in Roe v. Wade.”

Most troubling was the manner in which Obama began his answer at the Saddleback Forum. The question encompassed not only abortion but was framed as when “does a baby get human rights?” On this pretty simple question about when the newest members of our society are to be treated as human beings and entitled to human rights, Obama could only offer that “answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.” What! The man who asks us to trust him with the highest political job in the world cannot give us a straightforward answer to the question of when “a baby gets human rights”! And if he truly is unable to answer the question, shouldn't he logically be doing everything he can to extend full protection to those babies both born and unborn so that we do not commit the atrocity of deliberately taking an innocent human life?

When Obama made a nearly identical nod to the “moral dimension to abortion” at the Compassion Forum back in April, I offered the following comment here at Mirror of Justice: “Given Obama’s unwillingness to affirm that human life is literally at stake, the nature of this ‘moral dimension’ was less than clear. Beyond words, what exactly does this recognition of a moral element mean to someone like Obama who is asking to lead our nation? Is there any evidence that this ‘moral dimension’ to abortion or this ‘moral weight’ to ‘potential life’ has any consequence for Obama’s approach to public policy on the question?”

The next episode followed soon after the first, when Senator Obama was interviewed right after the Saddleback Forum by the Christian Broadcasting Network (the full interview on video is available on the CBN web site). During the interview, Senator Obama let slip the mask of congenial respect for his opponents on the abortion issue and blasted pro-life groups for supposedly “lying” about his abortion record: “They have not been telling the truth. And I hate to say that people are lying, but here’s a situation where folks are lying.” Obama was addressing nagging questions about his startling opposition as an Illinois state senator to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, which was designed to ensure medical treatment to babies who survived an abortion procedure. As he repeated again in this interview, Obama now claims he would have fully supported the federal version of this law and that he only opposed the state version because “what that bill also was doing was trying to undermine Roe vs. Wade.” For anyone to say otherwise, Obama insisted this week, “it defies common sense and it defies imagination, and for people to keep on pushing this is offensive.”

Yes, it does indeed defy common sense and defy the imagination that Senator Obama would take such an extreme position. But, once the public record of his legislative actions was unearthed, it turns out this is just what he did. As the New York Sun put it by way of considerable under-statement (here), rather than the pro-life movement having “lied” about Obama’s legislative record, Obama was the one who, well, “appeared to misstate his position” in the interview. Facts are stubborn things, as John Adams said.

Which brings us to the third episode, which in turn takes us back in time several years to an incident that became the subject of focused attention this week. This episode is the most revealing and consequential of all. Rather than having to parse his words, we see how Obama makes an actual decision about human rights for the most vulnerable. We have an opportunity to look at his attitude about the sanctity of human life from a time before he was appealing to a wider audience while campaigning for the presidency. In 2003, then-state senator Obama took a more extreme position on abortion than any member of the United States Congress and surpassed even the National Abortion Rights Action League in his promotion of abortion rights. The United States Congress unanimously approved the federal Born Alive Infant Protection Act. Even such pro-choice Senators as Kerry, Clinton, and Boxer cast “yes” votes on this legislation. But when the same legislation came before the Illinois legislature, Obama used his position as chair of a committee to kill it.

Confronted with that outrageous conduct, Obama has repeatedly insisted that he would happily have supported the federal version. He swears that he only opposed the state version because it did not contain a clause stating that it would not overturn existing abortion access laws. And for that reason, Obama says, the pro-life movement is “lying” about his record.

Unfortunately for Obama, the 2003 legislative records have been unearthed and tell a very different story. Multiple versions of the Born Alive Infant Protection legislation came up for consideration before the state legislative subcommittee that Obama chaired. One of those versions was identical to the federal version, containing the very clause that Obama now says would have secured his satisfied approval. And Obama still voted against it as a state senator. (The state bill that was identical to the federal version and which Obama still opposed is available here.)

On the campaign trail, Obama likes to say that “words matter.” But deeds matter even more. For an eyewitness account of Senator Obama’s repeated efforts to defeat the state legislation to protect babies born alive during an abortion, juxtaposed with Obama’s unsettling endorsement of the abortion rights industry at a live appearance before Planned Parenthood, I refer you to a video viewed hundreds of thousands of times at YouTube.

Greg Sisk


Sisk, Greg | Permalink

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