In last Wednesday’s debate, when the Republican candidates were asked about their positions on birth control, Newt Gingrich parried with one of his usual tactics, a fusillade against the mainstream media. He told CNN’s John King, “You did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. If we’re going to have a debate about who is the extremist on these issues, it is President Obama, who, as a state senator, voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion.”
Two points of Gingrich’s barrage warrant assessment. First, did Barack Obama, as a state senator, vote “in favor of legalizing infanticide,” by voting “to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion”? And second, has no one in the elite media ever discussed his record on the issue? Yes; and no, but essentially yes.
Gingrich’s assertion rests on then–State Senator Obama’s opposition, in 2001, 2002, and 2003, to successive versions of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, an Illinois bill that was meant to provide protection for babies born alive after attempted abortions. The bill gave them protection as legal persons and required physicians to provide them with care, rather than allowing doctors to deal with them as they would, literally, with medical waste. In 2008, Obama’s campaign repeatedly claimed that he opposed the bill because it was unnecessary, since Illinois law already provided protection for infants born alive. However, as Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out on NRO at the time, this extended only to babies whom physicians deemed to have “sustainable survivability.” Thus infants who were not expected to survive could be killed or left unattended to die. Obama, Ponnuru wrote, “did not want the gap filled.” (The National Right to Life Committee has a report on Obama, Illinois’s legal loophole, and its horrific consequences here.)
Obama maintained at the time, with support from Planned Parenthood of Illinois, that the bill wasn’t really about protecting infants’ lives or mitigating their suffering, but was in fact a backdoor attempt to restrict abortion. The argument (which is constitutionally dubious, anyway) goes that, by providing legal protection and “recognition as a human person” for a pre-viable infant, the law could be used to threaten Roe v. Wade. Thus, in his 2004 Senate campaign, and then during the course of the 2008 campaign, Obama claimed that he would have supported a law like the 2002 federal born-alive statute, which stated explicitly that it could not be used to dispute the legal status of fetuses prior to their birth.
In committee in 2003, however, Obama voted against a version of the Illinois bill that contained the same protection included in the federal bill (which passed 98–0 in the U.S. Senate). Thus, Obama’s tenuous constitutional argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
One other excuse for Obama’s opposition to the Illinois bill has been proffered: that the final version of the bill was coupled with another piece of legislation that imposed criminal or civil consequences for doctors who did not properly treat infants who were covered by the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. Obama and others deemed this second bill unacceptable. However, this doesn’t begin to defend Obama’s vote on the first bill.
As Ponnuru pointed out back in 2008, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact admitted the above facts as such, but have disputed whether they constitute “legalizing infanticide”; FactCheck argued that that question remains a value judgment. Since the Illinois bill would have provided legal protection for born-alive infants who had not been protected before, by opposing it, Obama voted to continue to make it legal to kill them. Thus, the only question remaining in order to determine whether it was “infanticide” is: Were the subjects of the bill fetuses or were they infants? In order for them not to be considered infants, one would have to contend that an unviable prematurely born baby is not an infant — a claim few would be willing to make. And yet, Obama’s votes, three times over the course of three years, indicate that he believes that fetuses who have been born alive, but have not yet reached the age of viability, are not human persons worthy of protection by our laws. Such a position on abortion is, to say the least, extreme, and deserves attention.
Which leads to the second question Gingrich raised: Have the media questioned Obama’s position on the Illinois infanticide bill? Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple has turned up a few media references to President Obama’s extreme abortion stances from the 2008 campaign: two CNN segments discussing his record, including the Illinois legislation specifically; one instance in a debate, where John McCain raised the question of Obama’s record, and he defended his position on the Illinois bill; and one interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, in which Obama was queried on partial-birth abortion, though not the Illinois legislation specifically.
The attention was most intense in August of 2008, after the NRLC managed to generate national debate about Obama’s position on the Illinois bill. Obama was asked about it during an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, where he offered a thoroughly deceptive response to the question, saying, “Here’s a situation where folks are lying” about his position. However, Obama was the one lying: He told the interviewer, David Brody, that he opposed the bill because of its threat to Roe v. Wade, and that existing Illinois law already protected infants who were born alive. As we have seen, the first assertion is implausible; the second is just plain false.
This seems to be the one instance in which a journalist asked candidate Obama directly about his support for the bill, and he was unfortunately let off, even by a conservative reporter, with his mendacious explanation.
Both the Washington Post and the New York Times reported on the controversy, noting the points the NRLC had raised about Obama’s inconsistent and extreme positions. The Times, citing sources on both sides, explored Obama’s claim that he opposed the final Illinois bill because of its unacceptable companion bill. However, Obama’s claim has no solid legal basis: Two different bills are two different bills.
Thus, while one cannot say, as Gingrich did, that the media have literally never questioned Obama’s extreme record on abortion, we can certainly say that there has not been a sufficiently revealing discussion of his views. An honest appraisal would depict him as having voted repeatedly to protect a form of infanticide. Instead, the media have willingly accepted explanations that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
And they deserve scrutiny, for two reasons. First, as explained above, Obama has offered deceptive explanations of his own pro-abortion legislative work, while simultaneously accusing his pro-life opponents of being dishonest. More important, Obama’s record as a state senator was not merely pro-choice, but radically pro-abortion. His voting record indicates that he does not believe infants deserve protection even once they have emerged from the womb if they are deemed to be below the age of viability, and he did in fact, three times, vote to keep a form of infanticide legal.
— Patrick Brennan is the 2011 William F. Buckley Fellow at National Review.