Like most Americans and the Democratic presidential candidates, I am pro-choice although I believe the first defense against unwanted pregnancy, and STDs, is prevention. (Today's Washington Post reveals that the "best-kept secret" for AIDS prevention in Africa is birth control, not giving antiretroviral drugs to pregnant women. And, notably, Africa is but one of the continents where First Lady Hillary Clinton worked hard for eight years for women's rights and economic empowerment.)
There is a compelling moral exception: A fetus born alive during an abortion becomes an infant, and shouldn't be left for hours or days to die without medical care, a practice in some U.S. hospitals.
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama differ markedly in their voting records on the live birth of an aborted infant.
As an Illinois state senator, Obama "joined several other Democrats in voting 'present' in 2001 and 'no' the next year," reports A.P./CBS News in "Obama Record May Be Gold Mine For Critics -- Eight Years As State Senator Were Full Of Controversial Votes, Including Abortion And Gun Control."
During the same two years, as a U.S. Senator, Hillary Clinton joined the 98-0 vote in the U.S. Senate on a 2001 amendment to the Patients Bill of Rights that protected "infants who are born alive."
In 2002, a House bill that protected infants born alive was passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate -- with Sen. Clinton joining the "Yeas" -- and was signed into law.
If you think what Karl Rove did to John McCain in South Carolina's 2000 primary was brutal, just imagine what the GOP will do with Obama's "present" and "no" votes on "live birth abortion."
How would the Republicans play it? Do Democratic primary voters know yet just how vulnerable Obama is on this issue? Has Obama been carefully vetted on his potentially explosive record? Will he be able to transcend conflict, or will he needlessly plunge Democrats into an old debate in which they will be on the losing side -- particularly since Democratic U.S. Senators voted unanimously to protect the life of an infant born alive?
Obama's votes have already enraged activists nationwide for years -- as any Google search will quickly demonstrate. Pastor Rick Warren was slammed hard by other ministers when he invited Obama to a December 2006 AIDS conference. Then there's Jill Stanek (photo), a highly articulate registered nurse in Chicago, Illinois, who has written numerous op-eds, and who also testified before the Illinois state senate and U.S. Congress on the "live birth abortion" she witnessed in a Chicago hospital.
It is near certain that the Republicans, in a general election race, would recruit Jill Stanek and ministers to speak out against Obama's votes.
It is 100% certain that the Republicans would create a broohaha on this one issue, and that Obama would find himself explaining and defending his voting record for days, if not weeks.
There are more details on Obama's Illinois state senate voting record, from a Chicago Tribune columnist, who quotes 2004 Democratic primary opponents' concern about Obama's record:
"You want to talk about ducking issues Mr. Obama? Where were you in Springfield when there were six pro-choice votes called? You were present or not present, but you weren't there to vote. So let's not talk about who ducked issues here." --Cook County Treasurer [Democrat] Maria Pappas, at the Feb. 23, 2004 Democratic Senate Primary debate
"Seven times, Barack Obama ducked [the issue of abortion]. ... Each time he ducked by voting `present' instead of taking a stand." --2004 [Democrat] Blair Hull campaign flier
The Tribune columnist, Eric Zorn, dug up the records on "then-state Sen. Barack Obama's 'present' votes on tough issues in the Illinois Legislature--votes that at least two of his opponents in the March 16, 2004 Democratic U.S. Senate primary say mark him as a coward":
In 1997 Obama voted "present" on two bills aimed at banning so-called partial-birth abortion. In 2001 he voted "present" on three bills that fell under the rubric of "born-alive infant" legislation, and on a bill to require parental notification in cases when minors sought to have abortions.
Additionally, in 1997, Obama voted "present" on a proposal to drop the penalty for carrying a concealed gun from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Of note: I am emphatic in reiterating that Sen. Obama is pro-choice and, in fact, receives a 100% rating from pro-choice groups. However, the "present" and "no" votes on the live birth legislation in the Illinois state senate have angered antiabortion activists around the country. If you search for "Obama live birth abortion," you'll see what I mean. It is undoubtedly an issue that the Republicans will pound on through a general election, should Sen. Obama receive the nomination.
Additionally, Sen. Obama's various statements on abortion have confused me. I've sent his statements to others for their reaction and they tell me that they also find his statements confusing. Allow me to provide some examples.
On October 11, 2007, Garance Franke-Ruta wrote an article -- "NOT VOTING IS NOT THE SAME AS VOTING NO" -- at The Prospect's TAPPED blog:
Indeed, Obama's track record on controversial votes is something I've been thinking a lot about over the past few days, ever since he appeared to call for new regulations on abortion in response to a question from an anti-choice listener in Iowa on Saturday. According The New York Times Obama said:
"there is a large agreement, for example, that late-term abortions are really problematic and there should be a regulation."
As there is no such movement toward a new late-term abortion regulation among any pro-choice group I am aware of, I asked Obama spokesman Bill Burton for elaboration on this over the weekend. He said:
"Obama did not suggest that new regulations were needed or appropriate. He simply stated the fact that there is agreement that late-term abortions should be limited to the rare instances where the life or health of a woman is at stake. And he has consistently made clear that abortion regulations, such as the Federal Abortion Ban, that lack exceptions for the life and health of women are unconstitutional and endanger women's health."
Both those statement suggest some comfort with banning second-term abortions, however, as most states already ban early third-trimester ones, as Roe permits them to do. And Obama is correct in that there is very little public support for keeping second-term abortions legal. Still, it would have been easier to interpret Obama's statement if he had a clear voting record on this topic. Instead, Obama managed to absent his opinion from the Illinois legislature twice during votes on a partial-birth ban in Illinois -- voting present rather than yes or no -- muddying the actual record about his beliefs. Clinton in 2000 said that she would be open to a ban on late-term abortions, as well, but when push came to shove in the U.S. Senate, she voted against the partial-birth abortion ban which Bush signed into law in 2003 and which the Supreme Court upheld earlier this year. So her record is clear.
Then there is the interview of Barack Obama when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 2004 by Jeff Berkowitz, a Chicago discussion show host. Berkowitz covered the interview about abortion on his blog, Public Affairs:
Jeff Berkowitz: Switching over to abortion, you have said that you would vote in support of, if you were a [U. S.] Senator the federal law that came up that passed [the U. S. Senate] 98 to 0 and that was known as the Live Birth Infant Protection Act.
Barack Obama: That is exactly right. Because there was a different bill than the one that was introduced by [then] Senator Patrick O'Malley here in Illinois and we actually offered amendments that would have provided assurance that Row. v. Wade [U. S. Supreme Court, 1973] was still respected even as we dealt with what I think actually were some very anecdotal evidence that there might have been some problems although there has never been any hard evidence that there were. Unfortunately, Mr. O'Malley wanted to make a broader point because he does not believe that a woman should exercise a right to choose in any circumstances.
Berkowitz: But, if that happened in Illinois, if there were some abortions- so called abortions that went wrong- a live fetus was born. Would you seek to have legislation that protected those fetuses?
Obama: I would if there wasn't already legislation. Unfortunately [sic?], there is existing legislation-
Berkowitz: On the state level?
Obama: On the state level that says if there is a fetus that is determined viable and there has to be a second doctor who assists in determining that that fetus is viable- they are required by current Illinois Law to provide that fetus with assistance to make sure that they can live outside the womb. The law already exists. That's not what Senator O'Malley's law was about. What Senator O'Malley's law was about was identifying all fetuses as human beings as a way of going after the right of women to choose to have an abortion pre- viability and that's the reason that I, like a number of other senators, including Republican senators, voted either present or against it.
Sen. Obama's arguments sound reasonable if confusing, but there are bitter commentaries around the Internet on both the senator's views and on his inconsistent voting record. The January 2007 A.P./CBS News story raised many questions:
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama may have a lot of explaining to do.
He voted against requiring medical care for aborted fetuses who survive. He supported allowing retired police officers to carry concealed weapons, but opposed allowing people to use banned handguns to defend against intruders in their homes. And the list of sensitive topics goes on.
With only a slim, two-year record in the U.S. Senate, Obama doesn't have many controversial congressional votes which political opponents can frame into attack ads. But his eight years as an Illinois state senator are sprinkled with potentially explosive land mines, such as his abortion and gun control votes. ...
"Explosive land mines." That concerns me.
The avoidance by voting "present" is another issue. Influential columnist Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times writes about Obama's 2004 Democratic primary opponent's campaign:
[Democratic primary opponent Blair Hull's campaign staff] orchestrated a series of mailings to Illinois voters which referenced the Obama present votes on abortion with a picture of a duck and "He ducked" in the headline.
Garance Franke-Ruta pointed out, in "NOT VOTING IS NOT THE SAME AS VOTING NO," that Sen. Clinton's "record is clear."
And Sen. Clinton has the votes in the U.S. Senate -- in both 2001 and 2002 -- to back up her stand on offering medical care to infants born alive.
Please know that I am not saying "Never!" to an Obama presidential candidacy. It's just that, in this year, with his thin voting record in the U.S. Senate -- where he's only served two years -- there are too many "landmines" that he'd be hit hard by without also being able to point to votes such as those Sen. Clinton took in 2001 and 2002.
TOMORROW: Look for a new story on the candidates' positions on women's rights and equal opportunities, worldwide.