Two weeks ago, when the Huffington Post reported that the "infanticide" charge against Barack Obama was gaining traction in right-wing circles, the Illinois Democrat's campaign had not placed the issue on its "Fight the Smears" website. According to an Obama aide who spoke on background, the campaign did not see a compelling reason for lending greater profile to the attacks with a full-blown response.
On Wednesday, however, the campaign posted an exhaustive rebuttal to the "infanticide" charge -- a tacit admission that the controversy over a spate of anti-abortion bills that Obama opposed as an Illinois State Senator is not going away.
The event that forced the Obama camp's hand was a new push by the National Right to Life Committee. Late last week, the group announced that it had obtained details of a 2003 committee vote that contradicted Obama's past explanation for his opposition to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act while serving in the State Senate.
In past statements, Obama had described his opposition to multiple versions of the bill as stemming from concerns that the bill could endanger Roe vs. Wade. The first two iterations of the Illinois bill did not contain language that explicitly re-affirmed abortion rights granted under Roe. The NRLC now points out that the 2003 version contained a "neutrality" clause similar to that of the federal version -- for which Obama says he would have voted.
Thus, the NRLC announced that it had discovered the mendacity and manipulation at the heart of Barack Obama's pro-choice position: support for the grave charge of "infanticide."
Since Obama initially carved out his response to the controversy on Roe-centric grounds, any maneuvering he performs now might seem like a slimy cover-up to low-information voters. But as the campaign's fact sheet reveals today, there were numerous other reasons for a pro-choice politician to stand against the Illinois legislation at the time, outside of a furtive desire to kill children.
Those reasons included the fact that the Illinois legislation was bundled together with a measure that threatened doctors with criminal prosecution if they incorrectly applied the Born Alive bill. When NRLC legislative director Douglas Johnson claims that Illinois Senate bills 1082 and 1083 had no relationship outside of being sequentially numbered, and that they "were not in any way linked," he is either under-informed or willfully bending the record. Both bills were introduced by the same senator, and the Born Alive act only passed when the doctor-intimidation measure was dropped in 2005 (after Obama had moved to the U.S. Senate).
A local AP wire story (not available online) from March 9, 2005 reflects the reality that the two bills were always considered connected. Reporting on the passed version of the Born Alive measure, the agency wrote: "Unlike earlier versions that failed, this bill does not spell out what medical care doctors must provide when an abortion procedure ends in a live birth. The legislation also specifically says it has no impact on Illinois abortion laws."
In addition, Obama's Wednesday fact sheet appropriately makes the distinction between federal and state roles in regulating abortion. Put simply, the U.S. Senate was at greater liberty to expound on the definition of "born alive" infants, since it plays a rather small role in regulating abortion practice. States, on the other hand, must make sure that any new definition of "born alive" can comport with other existing statutes. As Planned Parenthood's Illinois chapter wrote in its own policy memo: "Federal law does not regulate abortion practice. That is left to the states. Therefore, it is state legislation that would affect abortion practice in Illinois."
Given the headache-inducing wonkery at work, it's not hard to understand why the Obama campaign didn't immediately dive into the Senator's past policy to rebut a charge that fared so poorly for Alan Keyes in his 2004 Senate campaign.
But with the resurgent Born Alive debate rating coverage on the Christian Broadcast Network as well as The Washington Post and The New York Times, the Obama campaign now apparently feels that traveling into the weeds of the issue is less damaging than allowing the NRLC's charges to go unchallenged.