“When he was in the Illinois state Senate, Barack Obama voted to deny basic Constitutional protections for babies born alive from an abortion — not once, but four times. I know it’s by the grace of God that I’m alive today, if only to ask America this question: Is this the kind of leadership that will lead us forward — that would discard the weakest among us?”
— Failed-abortion survivor Melissa Ohden in a new ad from Susan B. Anthony List
“[Obama] supports changing the definition of marriage, believes that human life is disposable and expendable at any time in the womb — even beyond the womb.”
— Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee during a speech at Republican National Convention, Aug. 29, 2012
These claims mirror attacks from abortion opponents during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. They relate to a series of no votes the former state lawmaker cast in the Illinois legislature between 2001 and 2003 against state bills that would have defined the term “born alive infant” and ensured legal protections to such newborns.
Supporters said the born-alive legislation was necessary to protect children who survive failed abortions, and they argued that Obama’s opposition showed an unwillingness to protect the lives of babies. Obama said unequivocally that he would have supported a born-alive act that didn’t undermine abortion rights.
Antiabortion activists have picked up where they left off in 2008, attacking Obama on the same issue. Let’s take a look at their claims to determine whether the president really voted to deny newborns basic constitutional protections and whether he truly believes human life is disposable — even beyond the womb. We’ll also examine Melissa Ohden’s claims about what happened after she survived an abortion.
Fair warning: Our analysis turned up several claims that are closely related to those in the quotes above. We’ll cover all of them in this column, applying our Pinocchio ratings as appropriate.
The antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony List released a video with testimony from failed-abortion survivor Melissa Ohden, who criticized the president’s Illinois Senate votes and said: “I was aborted and my body discarded like I didn’t exist. But a nurse heard me crying and cared enough to save my life.”
The Christian Broadcasting Network went a step further in explaining the details of Ohden’s survival story, saying “a nurse heard [Ohden] crying from the discarded medical waste.” An article on the Susan B. Anthony List similarly said, “The medical staff, prompted by a nurse who retrieved her from the trash, did not expect Melissa to live due to respiratory distress and other complications.”
Accounts like these can elicit strong emotional responses, but they can easily go unquestioned because of their highly personal and sensitive nature. Yet they often stretch the truth, as was the case with a Three-Pinocchio video that implied that Obama’s mother had haggled over health insurance while dying of cancer, or the Four-Pinocchio ad that suggested that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was responsible for the death of a woman who lost a battle with cancer after her husband was laid off from one of Bain Capital’s companies — even though the GOP candidate stopped managing the private-equity firm well before the layoff occurred.
Let’s determine whether anyone played loose with the facts in this case of an abortion survivor.
We wondered what Ohden meant when she said she was “discarded.” She explained that, according to her adoptive mother, the medical staff “laid her aside” because they didn’t think she would live. This sounds less dramatic than being “discarded,” which could easily give viewers the impression that medical personnel disposed of her body — exactly what the Christian Broadcast Network and Susan B. Anthony List claimed.
A birth record posted on Ohden’s Web site says nothing about the medical staff laying aside, discarding or leaving the newborn’s body for dead. In fact, it shows that the medical staff took steps to preserve her life after checking her Apgar score — which measures the health of newborn babies — and hearing a weak cry.
Perhaps the doctor left out details about leaving the infant for dead. Ohden said, “Such information is not likely to ever be recorded.... I’m just lucky enough to have the information in my records that I do have.”
But the fact remains that Ohden’s medical records do not prove her case about being discarded. The antiabortion activist also acknowledged that her account of being “laid aside” after birth came from a secondary source — a nurse from the hospital where she was transferred.
Ohden said she was unable to put us in touch with anyone who actually witnessed her birth. In light of the only hard evidence available, she earns two Pinocchios for claiming she was “discarded” at birth.
Chuck Donovan, president of the Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund, acknowledged that the antiabortion group made a mistake in saying a nurse retrieved Ohden’s body from the trash. The organization promised to remove the “trash” reference from its article, but it still earns Three Pinocchios for embellishing Ohden’s survival story.
The anti-Obama claims from Huckabee and Ohden refer to a series of Illinois bills known as the Born Alive Infant Protection acts, which would have defined the term “born alive infant” as “any member of the species homo sapiens” expelled or extracted from his or her mother that exhibits “a beating heart, pulsation of the umbilical cord, or definite movement of voluntary muscles.”
The 2001 and 2002 measures included a controversial line that proved to be a sticking point. It said, “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.”
Obama took issue with that part of the bill, saying it could interfere with a woman’s right to an abortion, as established through the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Here is an excerpt of his remarks from the 2001 floor debate:
“Number one, 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 nine-month-old child that was delivered to term. 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.”
Notice that Obama referred to “previable fetuses,” or those that do not have a reasonable chance of survival outside the mother’s body. Obama’s primary concern seems to be that the born-alive act would prohibit aborting a fetus still inside the womb.
Critics contend that this interpretation is not necessarily true because some previable fetuses survive after delivery from an unsuccessful abortion. They argue that Obama essentially opposed protecting the survivors.
Illinois lawmakers voted down identical versions of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act in 2001 and 2002 before a new iteration of the bill came before the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, headed by Obama. This new legislation removed the controversial line about recognizing live-born children as humans and giving them immediate protection under the law. It also addressed Obama’s concern about previable fetuses, adding a “neutrality clause” that said the measure would not affect the legal status of fetuses prior to delivery.
Nonetheless, Obama voted against the new bill, which happened to be an almost exact replica — almost to the word — of a federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act that passed in 2002 without opposition in either politial party. (Updated: The vote in the House was by voice vote and the vote in the Senate was by unanimous consent.)
Obama swore during the 2008 election that he would have supported the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, prompting the National Right to Life Committee to issue a scathing white paper that pointed out how he had contradicted himself by voting against the Illinois measure while backing the older federal version in retrospect during his presidential campaign.
Obama denied any contradiction during an interview that year with the Christian Broadcasting Network, accusing the antiabortion committee of lying about the circumstances of his vote. Here’s what he said:
“I hate to say that people are lying, but here’s a situation where folks are lying. I have said repeatedly that I would have been completely in, fully in support of the federal bill that everybody supported — which was to say — that you should provide assistance to any infant that was born — even if it was as a consequence of an induced abortion. That was not the bill that was presented at the state level. What that bill also was doing was trying to undermine Roe vs. Wade.”
From what we can tell, Obama misrepresented the facts during this interview. The 2003 bill addressed his concerns about undermining Roe v. Wade, and it matched the federal legislation that he supported virtually word for word.
For what it’s worth, The Fact Checker in 2008 appears to have overlooked the neutrality clause while awarding Two Pinocchios in a column that examined a separate claim from then-GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. However, that oversight wouldn’t have affected Palin’s rating, because her claim was different — closer to the claim from Huckabee.
The evidence suggests we could have awarded Four Pinocchios to the former Illinois senator for his comments to the Christian Broadcasting Network, but that interview is several years old now, and it’s not the focus of this particular column. The president’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the matter of whether Obama’s 2008 comments on the Christian Broadcasting Network contradicted his 2003 vote against Illinois’s Born-Alive Infants Protection bill.
Ohden and Huckabee
Ohden said that Obama “voted to deny basic Constitutional protections for babies born alive from an abortion.” This is true in the sense that the Illinois bills would have guaranteed certain protections for these infants. But Ohden’s claim lacks context: Obama’s objections to the bill suggest that he wasn’t so much bent on denying rights to newborns as wanting to block any legislation that could erode the premise of the Roe v. Wade decision.
Ohden earns one Pinocchio for her slanted take on the president’s position.
Huckabee said Obama “believes that human life is disposable and expendable … even beyond the womb.” But this is a mischaracterization of the president’s stance on the Born-Alive Infants Protection legislation in Illinois.
Granted, we don’t know why Obama voted against the 2003 bill that included a clause to protect abortion rights. The measure never made it out of committee, and comments from the meetings are not recorded. Nonetheless, we find it hard to fathom that the former senator expressed a belief that human life is disposable outside the womb.
Huckabee earns Three Pinocchios for his twisted interpretation of Obama’s no votes.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker
Track each presidential candidate's campaign ads