Gobs of ink have been spilled over Barack Obama's "present" votes on choice issues during his time in the Illinois State Senate. Yes, Obama voted "present" instead of "no" on seven bills that would have limited women's reproductive rights. And yes, Planned Parenthood of Illinois has defended Obama, saying he was acting out a rehearsed strategy for preserving pro-choice seats in the legislature. But while the Democratic campaigns and women's organizations quibbled over which 100 percent pro-choice Senator, Obama or Hillary Clinton, would be the better president for reproductive health, many choice advocates missed what was percolating under the radar: The beginnings of a conservative smear campaign against Obama's very real history of support for reproductive freedom.
The anti-choice anti-Obama strategy is based on Obama's clear "no" votes on the "Illinois Born Alive Infant Protection Act," or BAIPA. Leading anti-choice blogger Jill Stanek, who testified in the Illinois state Senate on behalf of the bill, has played a key role in disseminating this anti-Obama argument in the right-wing blogosphere. Taking the bait, former presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback, in a fundraising email to supporters of his political action committee last month, excoriated Obama for opposing BAIPA. And in a Feb. 26 editorial, the National Catholic Register fumed, "Obama wouldn't even protect children born alive by mistake during abortion attempts."
But BAIPA isn't really about protecting infants; it is anti-abortion rights legislation crafted by the hard right. BAIPA targets the abortion procedure known as dilation and extraction, which anti-choicers have so successfully re-branded as "partial birth abortion." Dilation and extraction accounts for less than one-fifth of one percent of all American abortions, and is used most often to end wanted pregnancies in which expectant parents learn their baby will not be viable outside of the womb. During the operation, the fetus' skull is collapsed inside of the woman, after which labor is induced and she delivers the fetus. It is a wrenching process, but one that allows a woman or couple to grieve and bring closure to a pregnancy by holding the intact fetus. It also decreases scarring, bleeding, and pain inside of a woman's uterus and vagina.
The antis want to redefine these fetuses as "born alive" and require that doctors provide "resuscitation." As a state senator, Obama saw BAIPA for what it was: an ideologically-motivated ploy to vilify women and doctors who choose abortion. On the state Senate floor on April 4, 2002, he explained, "This issue ultimately is about abortion and not live births. Because if there are children being born alive, I, at least, have confidence that a doctor who is in that room is going to make sure that they're looked after."
Of course, the idea that otherwise viable babies are regularly "born alive" during abortions is an invention of the anti-choice movement. Ninety percent of abortions are performed within the first 16 weeks of pregnancy through a procedure called aspiration, in which a surgical vacuum is used to empty out a woman's uterus. The second most common abortion procedure is dilation and evacuation, which takes place in rare cases after 16 weeks of pregnancy, often when a woman's health or life is at risk. Under that procedure, the aspiration process is sometimes preceded by an injection into the abdomen that ensures fetal demise.
So the only abortion procedure that could ever result in an intact fetus outside the uterus is the extremely rare dilation and extraction. The fact that just a few doctors perform just a handful of these procedures in the United States annually hasn't stopped the anti-choice movement from creating an entire lexicon, imagery, and legislative strategy around the symbol of these aborted fetuses. The vocabulary has trickled up into national politics. On the campaign trail, both Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee spoke about aborted fetuses "crying" in pain as doctors cast them aside into a heap. Suffice to say, such scenes are absent from the annals of medical literature. Dilation and extraction is such a rare operation that most hospitals won't perform one in a year, let alone conduct more than one in a day. Such rhetoric is not only divorced from reality, but deeply disrespectful to the many caring medical professionals who perform abortions because they are committed to serving women.
It is to Barack Obama's credit that, as an Illinois state senator, he voted against BAIPA twice, and then, as chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee in 2003, prevented it from advancing to the floor. It would be naive to believe that a few "present" votes will make social conservatives forget Obama's pro-choice advocacy on this issue. Indeed, they plan to peel moderate and Republican support away from Obama by painting him as a heartless politician who closed his ears to the cries of "abortion survivors." Let it serve as a reminder that supporters of reproductive rights have bigger fish to fry than one another.
This column originally appeared at RH Reality Check.