The Corner

Politics & Policy

Abortion and Infanticide: The Spin Never Dies

Former President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Milwaukee, Wis., October 26, 2018. (Sara Stathas/Reuters)

I’ll let others handle the spin Tommy Christopher puts on the debate over Virginia Democrats’ support for late-term abortion, a spin that you’re finding everywhere today, and focus instead on his distinctive decision to revisit Barack Obama’s record. Christopher’s remarks demonstrate how impervious to evidence such spin can be.

Christopher writes,

Proponents of abortion rights are wary of allowing the government to get a foot in the door between patients and doctors, which is why, for example, Barack Obama opposed the so-called Born Alive Infant Protection Act as a state legislator, which led to similar accusations of “infanticide.”

Obama opposed the measure because “infanticide” was, and is, already illegal, and the language of the bill could have been construed to confer rights to a fetus, which could theoretically have been used to restrict abortion rights.

That’s an accurate description of two of the several post hoc explanations that Obama’s team gave for his votes. It’s not an accurate description of Obama’s stated grounds for his opposition at the time.

State senator Obama did not think that Illinois law already protected all infants who had been fully delivered and that the legislation under consideration was therefore superfluous. He opposed several pieces of legislation because he did not want all infants to have this protection.

His March 30, 2001, statement against one of the bills did not claim that it would protect a fetus within the womb, and in 2003 he opposed a version of the legislation that explicitly excluded fetuses within the womb from protection.

Obama was, in principle, against granting legal protections for infants who had been delivered before viability (for example, when full delivery had been induced to cause the death of the baby). He did not want them to have a right to normal medical treatment, or even to have a right not to be killed.

Obama’s argument was that granting legal protections to pre-viable infants outside the womb logically implies that fetuses at the same stage of development inside the womb should have legal protection too. NARAL had made a similar argument against a federal version of the legislation the year before. In other words: The principle of abortion rights required support for legal infanticide in some cases.

The language to which state senator Obama objected in 2001 and 2002–the language to which his presidential campaign in August 2008 pointed in justifying his opposition–read simply, “A live child born as a result of an abortion shall be fully recognized as a human person and accorded immediate protection under the law.” The 2003 law he also opposed lacked that sentence, but merely defined any child born alive who “breathes or has a beating heart, pulsation of the umbilical cord, or definite movement of voluntary muscles” as a “person” for the purposes of Illinois law.

Journalists have muddied the waters about Obama’s stance for years. In 2012, a Washington Post fact-checker wrote “we find it hard to fathom that the former senator expressed a belief that human life is disposable outside the womb.” Hard to fathom or not, it’s what Obama did.

The lesson here is that some kinds of spin can succeed essentially forever, no matter how at odds with the facts. No doubt if Governor Northam runs for president in 2024, we will be told that he supported third-trimester abortions “only in cases where the baby could not survive” and anyone saying otherwise is lying.

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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