Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A very nice summary of Obama's abortion position

I took on the issue of Obama and abortion here already. But at the time I was still confused about Obama's position, because there was some discrepency between the pro-life's accusations of Obama's legislative record and Obama's defense of his own record.

Well today I happened upon this blog that explains it really well.

Read the whole article, but this portion of it is particularly informative:

Having read through the various arguments back and forth, here's my gut about what actually happened and what was actually at stake. The crux of the debate was over what, legally, counts as "alive." At the time, some doctors, courts and lawyers were operating on the assumption that a baby was effectively viewed as alive only if it was "viable," i.e it could survive, even with life support. That was, in effect, Obama's view.

The bill declared that the very act of being born and still being alive, gave you protections. Being alive was defined as one who "breathes or has a beating heart, pulsation of the umbilical cord, or definite movement of voluntary muscles." Before the law: a baby who had a pulsating umbilical cord but who would not - in the view of the doctors - survive would be allowed to die. After the law: the question of viability would be removed from the equation. If they were born, then they were deemed to be alive. Period.

As a result of the redefinition, doctors would need to treat any living baby that was produced through an abortion the same as one produced through an intentional birth, including taking urgent steps to keep it alive. That's why some pro-choice leaders viewed it as an attack on Roe v. Wade. The abortion process sometimes results in non-viable fetuses/babies living for a short time; to outlaw that, was to prohibit a legal form of abortion.

To some degree, what this is really about is who you trust to make that decision. The pro-choice forces and the Illinois Medical Society argued that "the doctor" was in the best position to make such a decision, not some anti-abortion activists. The Born Alive bill was accompanied by legislation making it easier to sue, feeding doctors fears that it really would be the trial lawyers working with anti-abortion groups that would wrest authority from the doctors.

On the other hand, the pro-life forces argue that the doctor in charge happens to be an abortionist, someone with a vested interest in claiming that the baby was not viable. For an abortionist to admit that the baby was viable he would be admitting that he failed at the basic task of performing a successful abortion - a profound conflict of interest. This strikes me as a very legitimate concern on the part of the pro-life advocates. They argued that its "alive"-ness should simply be assumed: if the baby is alive, it's then a case for the neo-natal doctor.

I hope you can see from my description that the born alive bill was neither a slam dunk, unconstitutional, boneheaded bill (as the Obama campaign said) nor a clear, black-and-white verdict on whether you care about life. It was a gray-area dispute over how non-viable fetuses brought forth during an abortion should be treated.

I think I also now understand why Obama has given such varied and shifting answers on this. My guess: the real reason he opposed it is that her preferred the old definition that focused on viability. But try saying that out loud: "I believe that babies that are still alive should be allowed to quietly die. " It's actually a defensible position. If you support mercy killing for terminally ill patients, for instance, you'd feel totally comfortable with allowing non-viable babies brought forth during an abortion to die, too. But it is excruciatingly difficult to explain without sounding like Dr. Kevorkian. You'd have to say what many people believe and yet is still harsh in the articulation: "Some things that are alive should be allowed to die. It is neither compassionate nor wise to sustain life that will not survive." How's that for winning campaign line? Better just say it's "unconstitutional." (For a more positive view of why Obama did what he did, see Doug Kmiec's book excerpt. For a less positive view, read the National Right to Life Committee's site)

My personal view is that Obama made a mistake in opposing the bill. He obviously made a mistake politically. But more important, he made a mistake in concluding that because the legislation was coming from the pro-life forces that it was therefore a trick entirely lacking in merit. He claims he's about bringing people together but in that case, he did not succeed in forging a workable compromise. In fact, when workable compromises came before him, he either voted no or did not embrace them. No, he did not show himself to be an infant killer. That charge is, as he's said, a lie. But he did show himself to be uninterested in forging common ground around abortion. He now says he wants to do just that but given his ardently pro-choice record, the burden of proof is on him to show that he's sincere about that.

I understand the controversy especially about this one detail on the abortion problem. I totally support the notion of not illegalizing abortion, but working to pass legislation to make it more rare.

Obama doesn't have a record of compromise on this issue that I would like to see. I would hope to see him address this and other similar issues more carefully and with more detail. But largely this is a cultural war issue that I would hope we could move past.

I suspect he has evolved on this issue over time, but like I said before, issues like health care, taxes, energy, foreign policy just matter so much more when choosing a president than whether or not a he or she wants to lock up both doctors and mothers who choose to abort a fetus...


H said...

I think that pro-choice and anti-abortion activists would argue that this is a very important issue. When it comes to appointing judges it is a huge deal! I have no idea how many Supreme Court Justices might be appointed in the next 4-8 years, but their decisions seem to affect the country for years to come (see Roe vs Wade!) Not that this would be a deciding factor for my vote, but it is definitely important for a candidate that wants financial backing from one side or the other. Aah, politics... politicians... and interest groups!

tempe turley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tempe turley said...


But say Roe v. Wade is overturned... The states would then immediately be placed with the responsibility on how to define the laws on this issue, and as a result would immediately put the country back into another cultural war.

What Roe V. Wade did was to legalize early term abortions, put increasing restrictions on abortions as the pregnancy continues. Later term abortions are illegal.

I just feel that you would basically come down to that sort of consensus anyway legislatively.

I wouldn't mind having a return to that discussion... But you're talking about a lot of political energy to move the law incrementally one way or another (you'll probably get some states more restrictive, other states less so).

And that is assuming the supreme court justices picked by either candidate actually follow through on overturning Roe v. Wade which is a pretty well embedded court judicial decision now.

I don't disagree that some people do put a lot of weight on this one issue... But those people are wrong to do so (in my humble opinion).

Better to put your energy on trying to do reduce the demand for abortions.

Better yet, lets not get distracted on more important issues right now: the economy, the financial crisis (are we or are we not heading to another depression), foreign policy, health care, education.