On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, used his weekly radio address to make some of his most pointed attacks yet on Barack Obama's abortion record, ending a summerlong détente on a hot-button culture war issue that still deeply divides many voters.
The gap between the candidates on this issue was particularly evident at the recent Saddleback Forum. McCain, who has consistently opposed abortion rights, promised the Rev. Rick Warren, the evangelical minister who hosted the discussion, that he would have a "pro-life presidency with pro-life policies." Obama, a staunch supporter of a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion and a defender of Roe v. Wade, found himself on the defensive before the largely evangelical Christian audience. When Warren asked him when he believes life begins, Obama demurred, saying the matter was "above my pay grade."
In his weekend radio address, McCain went after his opponent for avoiding the question, adding a new, rancorous tone to a campaign that has been primarily focused on energy, the economy, and national security. "Here was a candidate for the presidency of the United States, asked for his position on one of the central moral and legal questions of our time, and this was the best he could offer," McCain said. "Americans expect more of their leaders."
Though many political analysts have noted that McCain, unlike George W. Bush in 2004, has shown no real desire to put culture-war issues like gay marriage and abortion at the forefront of his campaign, this weekend he tried to depict Obama as out of the mainstream on these matters. "Listening to my opponent at Saddleback, you would never know that this is a politician who long since left behind any middle ground on the abortion issue," McCain said.
In his radio address, McCain spent several minutes drawing contrasts between his voting record and Obama's, pointing out that Obama has voted against parental notification requirements and a ban on partial-birth abortions. McCain also spoke frankly for the first time about an increasingly important issue to the religious right: Obama's votes as an Illinois state senator against a bill that would have extended health protections to fetuses that survived abortion procedures. "For a man who talks so often about 'hope,' Senator Obama doesn't offer much of it in meeting this great challenge to the conscience of America," McCain said. "His extreme advocacy in favor of partial-birth abortion and his refusal to provide medical care for babies surviving abortion should be of grave concern to reasonable people of goodwill on both sides of this issue."
Many political experts do not agree with McCain's characterization of Obama's views as extreme. According to polls conducted this summer, nearly two thirds of likely voters continue, like Obama, to support Roe, while almost 40 percent believe, like McCain, that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
Obama has said he believes pregnant women under the age of 18 should consult with their parents before considering an abortion, but he has said there shouldn't be government obstacles between women and their healthcare. Most parental consent bills, he has pointed out, would criminalize adults who try to help young women in need.
When the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 was passed, Obama was not in the U.S. Senate. But after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law last year, he said he "strongly disagree[s]" with the court's decision, since the legislation did not include an exception for the health of the mother.
Obama has spoken at length about his vote as an Illinois state senator against the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which he says has been widely distorted. The bill would have required doctors to perform life-saving treatment to fetuses born as a result of an induced abortion, but Obama says those babies were already protected under Illinois law. "There was already a law in place in Illinois that said that you always have to supply life-saving treatment to any infant under any circumstances," Obama told Relevant, a Christian magazine, earlier this summer. "This bill actually was designed to overturn Roe v. Wade, so I didn't think it was going to pass constitutional muster."