The Corner

The Latest Refinement

To the growing list of Barack Obama’s tactical moves to the right on terrorist wiretapping, gun control, trade, Iraq and the like we can now add abortion as well. In this case as in the others, he has moved in what would be the right direction on the substance, but in a way that strongly suggests he is trying to play voters for fools.

In an interview with the Christian magazine Relevant, Obama says he doesn’t believe that mental distress should qualify as a health exception for late-term abortions. He says:

I have repeatedly said that I think it’s entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don’t think that “mental distress” qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions.

This view would put Obama to the right of Supreme Court jurisprudence on abortion reaching back to the Doe v. Bolton decision that accompanied Roe, and in direct conflict with all the justices he says he admires and with the reigning orthodoxy of the pro-choice movement—including the so-called Freedom of Choice Act, of which Obama is a co-sponsor and which he told a Planned Parenthood audience last July he would make a top priority as president (here’s a transcript and a video, Obama says “the first thing I’d do as president is, is sign the Freedom of Choice Act.”)

After this startling reversal drew some attention over the weekend, Obama offered this clarification to a group of reporters:

Reporter: You said that mental distress shouldn’t be a reason for late-term abortion?

Obama: My only point is this — historically I have been a strong believer in a women’s right to choose with her doctor, her pastor and her family. And it is ..I have consistently been saying that you have to have a health exception on many significant restrictions or bans on abortions including late-term abortions. In the past there has been some fear on the part of people who, not only people who are anti-abortion, but people who may be in the middle, that that means that if a woman just doesn’t feel good then that is an exception. That’s never been the case. I don’t think that is how it has been interpreted. My only point is that in an area like partial-birth abortion having a mental, having a health exception can be defined rigorously. It can be defined through physical health, it can be defined by serious clinical mental-health diseases. It is not just a matter of feeling blue. I don’t think that’s how pro-choice folks have interpreted it. I don’t think that’s how the courts have interpreted it and I think that’s important to emphasize and understand.

Clear as mud. Even after this second go, Obama is still clearly at odds with where he was during the primaries and before, with the bill he has championed, with the pro-choice groups who have endorsed him, and with the Supreme Court justices he has said would be his model for future appointments.

As with his other recent “refinements,” his substantive move here would certainly be a welcome one, even an important one from such a prominent Democrat, if there were any reason at all to believe him. But given how quickly and seamlessly he has appeared to switch positions on so many prominent issues in the last few weeks, and how he has tried to present each new position as what he has always believed (rather than, in this case for instance, make a point of having come to disagree with at least the most extreme views of the abortion lobby) it is hard to imagine that either side on any of these issues finds much comfort in these increasingly peculiar neck-snapping reversals.

Despite the evident dishonesty of these moves, though, those of us with whom Obama is suddenly discovering so many points of agreement should certainly make the most of his awkward dance. Will other prominent Democrats agree with their candidate’s newly discovered views? If not, why not?

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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