Myths and falsehoods regarding Obama's votes on "born alive" bills

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI, RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN & ADAM SHAH

In reporting on abortion-rights opponents' criticism of Sen. Barack Obama's opposition as an Illinois state senator to bills seeking to amend the Illinois Abortion Law of 1975, the media have promoted numerous myths and falsehoods about Obama and the legislation. In several instances, the media have simply repeated false accusations -- or made the accusations themselves -- that Obama's opposition amounted to support for infanticide. For example, on the August 18 edition of his radio show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that Obama "believes it is proper to kill a baby that has survived an abortion," while right-wing pundit Ann Coulter said that Obama "wants the doctors ... chasing it through the delivery room to make sure it gets killed." Further, author Jerome Corsi claimed that "[e]ven if a child was born, he said the woman still had the right to kill the child in an abortion," and Oregonian associate editor David Reinhard wrote that Obama's opposition was "enabling infanticide." In fact, as Media Matters for America has repeatedly noted, Obama and other opponents said the bill posed a threat to abortion rights and was unnecessary because, they said, Illinois law already prohibited the conduct supposedly addressed by the bill.

Other myths and falsehoods that the media have promoted include the following:

MYTH: IL attorney general's letter contradicts Obama's explanation for opposing the legislation

Media figures have misrepresented findings by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the office of Illinois' then-Attorney General Jim Ryan to claim that Obama's assertion that Illinois law already "mandate[d] lifesaving measures for premature babies" was false. But the attorney general's letter in no way undermines Obama's statement. Moreover, tasked by the state attorney general with investigating allegations that fetuses surviving abortions at an Illinois hospital were not receiving medical care, the IDPH reportedly said, consistent with Obama's statement, that had the allegations proved true, the alleged conduct would have been illegal.

In his book The Case Against Barack Obama, author David Freddoso writes that a July 2000 letter from Ryan's office refutes Obama's statement. The letter was a response to Concerned Women for America regarding a complaint by nurse Jill Stanek, who claimed that fetuses that were born alive at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois, were abandoned without treatment, including in a soiled utility room. Under Ryan's letterhead, chief deputy attorney general Carole R. Doris wrote, in part:

On December 6, 1999, IDPH provided this office with its investigative report and advised us that IDPH's internal review did not indicate a violation of the Hospital Licensing Act or the Vital Records Act.

No other allegations or medical evidence to support any statutory violation (including the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act about which you inquired) were referred to our office by the Department for prosecution.

[...]

While we are deeply respectful of your serious concerns about the practices and methods of abortions at this hospital, we have concluded that there is no basis for legal action by this office against the Hospital or its employees, agents or staff at this time.

From that letter, Freddoso concludes that the state found that "[i]n leaving born babies to die without treatment, Christ Hospital was doing nothing illegal under the laws of Illinois." But the state's conclusions regarding the law were reportedly the opposite of what Freddoso claims; IDPH reportedly concluded that if the hospital had done what Stanek alleged, its actions would have been illegal under existing law.

In an August 2004 email discussion with Stanek, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn quoted IDPH spokesman Tom Shafer stating, apparently in reference to Stanek and another nurse, Allison Baker: "[W]hat they were alleging were violations of existing law. ... We took (the allegations) very seriously." Zorn wrote further: "Shafer told me that the 1999 investigation reviewed logs, personnel files and medical records. It concluded, 'The allegation that infants were allowed to expire in a utility room could not be substantiated (and) all staff interviewed denied that any infant was ever left alone.' " From Zorn's 2004 blog post:

As you well know, Jill, the Illinois Atty. General's office, then under abortion foe Jim Ryan, was quite concerned about your allegations and directed the Illinois Dept. of Public Health to conduct a thorough investigation of the claims made by you and Allison Baker.

Why?

"Because what they were alleging were violations of existing law," IDPH spokesman Tom Shafer told me yesterday. "We took (the allegations) very seriously."

Shafer told me that the 1999 investigation reviewed logs, personnel files and medical records. It concluded, "The allegation that infants were allowed to expire in a utility room could not be substantiated (and) all staff interviewed denied that any infant was ever left alone."

Shafer was quick to add that neither he nor the IDPH report concluded that your testimony was untruthful or exaggerated to help advance your anti-abortion views -- simply that their investigation did not substantiate the allegations.

In other words, the IDPH's reported position supported Obama's explanation: Current law already "mandated lifesaving measures for premature babies." Freddoso writes of Obama's explanation: "This is not true. Such measures were not already the law in Illinois. Not according to the Department of Public Health. Not according to Attorney General Ryan" [emphasis in original]. But the letter does not, as Freddoso claims, assert that "[s]uch measures were not already the law in Illinois." Nor does the IDPH; indeed, Zorn quoted the IDPH spokesman saying that the actions alleged by Stanek would have violated the law at the time.

Myth: Jill Stanek is a credible source for media outlets to cite

In addition to Freddoso, several media outlets, including The New York Times, the Associated Press, Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, The New York Sun and The Hill have quoted or cited criticism of Obama by Stanek over his opposition to bills to amend the Illinois Abortion Law of 1975 without citing relevant facts that undermine her credibility. These facts include her suggestion that domestic violence is acceptable against women who have abortions; her support of billboards in Tanzania that say "Faithful Condom Users" in English and Swahili and displays a large skeleton and aimed to discourage condom use there in favor of abstinence and "be[ing] faithful"; and her citation of a report that "aborted fetuses are much sought after delicacies" in China to which she added, "I think this stuff is happening." Media Matters has laid out several of these statements by Stanek.

MYTH: A 2003 bill Obama voted against in committee would have had same effect as 2002 federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which even abortion-rights advocates did not oppose

Media figures including Freddoso and Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund have reported that the 2003 bill to amend the Illinois Abortion Law that Obama voted against was identical in its language to the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002 (BAIPA), which Obama has said he would have supported. In reporting what they have characterized as an inconsistency in Obama's position, these media figures have advanced the false suggestion that the bills would have had the same effect. In fact, although both bills included language providing that the bills would not impinge on Roe v. Wade, Obama and abortion-rights advocates noted that Illinois law, unlike federal law at the time, includes statutory provisions specifically regulating abortion. Abortion-rights advocates said that in order for the Illinois bill to avoid restricting abortion rights in any way, it would also have to make explicit reference to Illinois law and make clear that it would not affect access to abortion under Illinois law.

In an August 15 Wall Street Journal column, Fund wrote that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) supported the federal BAIPA and later added: "But in the Illinois Senate, when Mr. Obama chaired the Health and Human Services Committee, records show a bill consisting of exactly the same language two years later was voted down by six to four. Mr. Obama was one of the legislators opposing it."

Similarly, in an August 13 National Review Online article, Freddoso wrote that "Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) does not share his [Obama's] position. In 2001, just three months after Obama inveighed against protecting premature babies in Illinois, the United States Senate voted on the language of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. It contained no significant legal differences from the Illinois bill, but it did contain even more specific and redundant language stating that the bill did not apply to the unborn, only those already born." He continued: "But in case there is any ambiguity, the federal bill was identical, word for word, to the bill that Obama voted to kill two years later in the Illinois senate health committee, which he chaired."

But abortion-rights advocates in Illinois opposed the 2003 state bill because, they said, the language of the federal bill in Illinois would not sufficiently protect abortion rights in Illinois. Specifically, Planned Parenthood of Illinois has said:

Finally, perhaps the most significant difference between the federal and state versions of the legislation is the fact that the federal version applied to federal law while the state version applied to Illinois law. The federal legislation was considered to be a restatement of existing federal law. The federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act did not amend or change Illinois law. At the time, there were no federal laws regulating abortion in any way. Therefore, the federal law did not limit access to abortion services or threaten legal action against physicians. But, Illinois law does regulate abortion and medical practice. Therefore, it is the state legislation that would have affected abortion practice in Illinois, not federal law. While these differences between the federal and state legislation may appear to be just legal technicalities, when it came to medical care for pregnant women the actual impact would have been significant.

The group goes on to explain that that this affected the 2003 state legislation that Obama opposed:

On March 12, 2003 both bills [in a 2003 state package] were posted for consideration in the Illinois Senate Health and Human Services Committee which was chaired by Senator Barack Obama. The bills' sponsor, Senator Rick Winkel first presented SB 1082. He requested that an amendment be adopted to the bill which would change it to mirror the federal legislation passed in 2002. The amendment was adopted in a procedural move called "leave for attendance roll call" which is a courtesy that is afforded to bill sponsors in order to move committee hearings along in a timely fashion. Despite the fact that the bill then contained the same language as the federal law, it remained problematic because it still amended Illinois statutes regulating abortion, and it still was part of a package that included SB 1083. Senator Winkel presented SB 1082 to the committee and it failed on a vote of six members voting no (including Senator Obama) and four members voting yes. Chairman Obama asked Senator Winkel if he wished to present SB 1083. He declined. Senator Winkel did not present the bill because, due to the failure of SB 1082, SB 1083 lacked a definition of a "live born" fetus and, thus, was structurally flawed. SB 1082 and SB 1083 were not considered again that session.

Planned Parenthood states of the 2005 "compromise" bill that included legislative language making clear that the bill did not affect state abortion or medical practice law: "The enactment of HB 984 did not negatively impact access to abortion services in Illinois and medical care for pregnant women remains protected."

From Fund's column:

It turns out that while in the Illinois legislature, he [Obama] voted against a bill that would have defined a fully born baby who survived an abortion as a "person." The concept isn't that controversial even among liberal Democrats. Senator Barbara Boxer of California, the Senate's leading pro-choice champion, urged her fellow Democrats to vote for a federal version of the same concept back in 2001, saying such a provision did not impinge on the rights enshrined in the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. The Born Alive Infants bill eventually passed the U.S. Senate by 98 to 0.

But in the Illinois Senate, when Mr. Obama chaired the Health and Human Services Committee, records show a bill consisting of exactly the same language two years later was voted down by six to four. Mr. Obama was one of the legislators opposing it.

From Freddoso's article:

Obama would speak against the born-alive protection bill once again when it was proposed in 2002, and he would kill the bill when it came before the committee he chaired in 2003, after Democrats had taken control of the Illinois General Assembly. His is a radical position that most abortion-choice advocates do not share.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) does not share his position. In 2001, just three months after Obama inveighed against protecting premature babies in Illinois, the United States Senate voted on the language of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. It contained no significant legal differences from the Illinois bill, but it did contain even more specific and redundant language stating that the bill did not apply to the unborn, only those already born.

But in case there is any ambiguity, the federal bill was identical, word for word, to the bill that Obama voted to kill two years later in the Illinois senate health committee, which he chaired. Obama's work to kill the bill in 2003 has always been attested to by witnesses (committee records are poorly kept in Springfield), but yesterday the National Right to Life Committee found and revealed the document showing definitively that Obama had voted against it in committee -- against the exact same bill he is now falsely claiming on his own campaign website that he would have supported.

MYTH: Obama voted "present" on IL bill to avoid being the only senator to vote "no"

In The Obama Nation, Corsi falsely asserted that on March 30, 2001, Obama voted "present" on a bill amending the Illinois Abortion Law of 1975 that opponents said posed a threat to abortion rights because he didn't want to be the only state senator to vote against the bill. In fact, according to the transcript of the Senate's proceedings on the bill that day -- which Corsi himself cited -- the roll call for the vote was 34 voting aye, 6 voting no, and 12 voting present.

In The Obama Nation, Corsi wrote:

Not wanting to be the only Illinois state senator to vote against the bill, a move that Obama realized would be politically unpopular with his constituency, he took the easy way out and voted "Present." [Page 238]. [citing "State of Illinois, 92nd General Assembly, Regular Session, Senate Transcript, 20th Legislative Day, March 30, 2001, at http://www.ilga.gov/senate/transcripts/strans92/ST033001.pdf pp. 86-87"]

Pam Sutherland, the president and CEO of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, has reportedly said that Obama's "present" votes on "born alive" bills were part of a legislative strategy.

MYTH: Obama argued that protections for "a nine-month old fetus" would essentially "forbid abortions from taking place"

In his book, Corsi also falsely claimed that during the debate on the March 30, 2001, bill, "Obama rose to object that if the bill passed, and a nine-month-old fetus survived a late-term labor-induced abortion was deemed to be a person who had a right to live, then the law would "forbid abortions to take place" [Page 238]. In fact, Obama was not describing a "nine-month-old fetus," but rather specifically referring to "a previable fetus," asserting that defining it as a "person" under the law would "essentially bar abortions."

Fox News' Sean Hannity uncritically echoed Corsi's false claim on the August 15 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show.

Posted In
Health Care, Reproductive Rights
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