With less than 23 days to go before Election Day, John McCain and Sarah Palin are launching a range of attacks on their Democratic opponent that revolve around one central question: Who is Barack Obama? Whether these broadsides focus on Obama's ties to former domestic terrorist William Ayers, his votes on funding troops in Iraq or his record on crime in Illinois, they all aim at emotional, hot-button issues that the McCain campaign hopes will cut through the political clutter and current financial crisis to help convince voters that Obama is not the man they thought him to be nor is he fit for the most powerful job in the world.
The McCain campaign's latest salvo centers around perhaps the hottest issue of all, abortion, which up till now hasn't dominated much of the campaign conversation.
Late last week, and with little fanfare, Palin began claiming at rallies and in a radio interview that Obama had once opposed providing medical care for certain newborn babies, who later died. Without any clear context, Palin's statements seemed to suggest that Obama supported a form of infanticide.
"As a state senator, Barack Obama wouldn't even stand up for the rights of infants born alive during an abortion," Palin said on Saturday, during a Johnstown, Pa., rally. "These infants, often babies with special needs, are simply left to die."
The allegation was part of a broader line of attack that Palin, who opposes abortion in all cases including rape and incest, used to paint Obama as the real extremist on the issue of abortion. "A vote for Barack Obama is a vote for activist courts that will continue to smother the open and democratic debate we need on this issue, at both the state and federal level. A vote for Barack Obama would give the ultimate power over the issue of life to a politician who has never once done anything to protect the unborn."
Two days earlier, during an appearance on the Laura Ingraham Show, Palin said Obama had voted against providing medical care to babies who were alive after attempted abortions. "It's very appalling," Palin said. "If more Americans could understand how absolutely extreme that position is, there would be a heck of a lot more outrage than we have already seen." Hours later, in Wisconsin, she repeated the charge that Obama had voted against providing "health care for a child who was born alive as a result of a botched abortion."
In each case, Palin's words were carefully chosen for maximum effect, without employing any outright falsehoods. Taken in isolation, however, her statements were also quite misleading, as they suggested that Obama supported the death of babies after birth who had a chance of survival.
The reality is very different. Between 2001 and '03, Obama repeatedly voted to oppose bills in the Illinois senate that would have declared, simply, that any child "born alive" as a result of an abortion shall be protected as a "human person" under the law. The bills broadly defined a live birth as any child outside the mother who shows voluntary movement, breathes or has a beating heart, among other attributes.
At the time, as the Obama campaign has pointed out, Illinois state law already required doctors to provide medical treatment for all children born after abortions who demonstrated viability, which was defined under the law as a "reasonable likelihood of sustained survival of the fetus outside the womb, with or without artificial support." The Born Alive legislation, therefore, would have primarily impacted a different category of babies those born with life signs that doctors decided did not have a reasonable chance of survival.
During the debate over the bill, Obama and other abortion supporters used the term "previable fetuses" to describe these situations. Obama voiced concern that if applied to state abortion law, the Born Alive legislation's recognition of a "human person's" rights for the previable would complicate the legal underpinnings of abortion rights.
In a 2001 statement on the state senate floor, Obama explained his rationale for opposing the bill. "Whenever we define a previable fetus as a person that is protected by the equal-protection clause or the other elements in the Constitution, what we're really saying is, in fact, that they are persons that are entitled to the kinds of protections that would be provided to a child, a 9-month-old child that was delivered to term," he said. "That determination then, essentially, if it was accepted by a court, would forbid abortions to take place. I mean, it would essentially bar abortions, because the equal-protection clause does not allow somebody to kill a child, and if this is a child, then this would be an antiabortion statute."