Of the thousands of people who gathered in the plaza of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., for Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign announcement last Saturday, only a handful were protesters rather than supporters.
But there were 50 or so waving signs and chanting, “No abortion, no Obama.” Their voices might become a consistent presence as the senator makes his way around the country in his bid to win the White House.
Abortion foes in Illinois, following the lead of registered nurse Jill Stanek, are targeting Obama (D-Ill.) for a number of “present” and “no” votes he cast on anti-abortion legislation during his time in the Illinois state Senate.
It is hardly unusual that a Democratic candidate would receive unfavorable attention from anti-abortion groups. But Stanek and other anti-abortion crusaders in Illinois are targeting Obama because he voted on a package of legislation collectively known as the Illinois Born Alive Infants Protection Act.
The legislation came about after Stanek, then a nurse at Christ Hospital in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, witnessed late-term abortions “where babies were being aborted alive and shelved to die in the soiled utility room” of the hospital, in her words.
Stanek, who said she held one of those infants until it died after about 45 minutes, began reaching out to public officials, testifying before both state and national lawmakers.
From 2001 to 2002, Obama voted either “present” or “no” on the legislation. In his floor speeches at the time, he cited in particular his concerns about the constitutionality of the definition of a “born alive infant” and the inclusion of potential civil and criminal penalties for doctors in these situations. He also warned that the bill might compromise the relationship between a woman and her doctor.
The measure failed in the Illinois statehouse in both 2001 and 2002.
In one speech in the spring of 2001, Obama said he agreed in principle with the need to protect infants, but argued that the measure went too far in its definitions of fetal viability.
“This is an area where potentially we might have compromised and … arrived at a bill that dealt with the narrow concerns about how … a pre-viable fetus or child was treated by a hospital,” Obama said at the time.
At the same time, similar legislation made its way through the federal process and was eventually signed into law by President Bush in August 2002 in Pittsburgh. Stanek, now a columnist for WorldNetDaily.com, attended the signing and was mentioned by Bush.
Separately, a Senate amendment to protect infants born alive during abortion was offered by then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in 2001. It passed the Senate 98-0 with all current Democratic presidential hopefuls who were in the Senate at the time voting in favor, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Chris Dodd (Conn.), Joseph Biden (Del.) and then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) spoke on the measure on the Senate floor, saying, “I, as being a pro-choice senator on this side, representing my colleagues here, have no problem whatsoever with this amendment.
“I feel good about that,” Boxer said. “I feel good that we can, in fact, vote for this together. It is very rare that we can.”
Obama’s campaign did not return calls for comment, but Pam Sutherland, president of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, said the Illinois legislation was misleading and a far cry from the Senate’s legislation. Obama was aware of this difference, she added.
Sutherland noted that every medical group in the state was opposed to the state legislation, which would have opened the door to “civil suits and criminal charges” for doctors and led directly to an overall ban on abortions.
“The legislation was written to ban abortion, plain and simple,” she said. “Sen. Obama saw the legislation, when he was there, for what it was.”
On the narrower issue of “born alive” infants, Sutherland said, Planned Parenthood of Illinois worked last year with the anti-abortion group, the Illinois Federation of Right to Life, to pass legislation that protects infants that survive abortion procedures.
But Stanek said Obama was the only state senator to speak out on the legislation, and his actions there are “just one demonstration of how liberal he is.”
“Everybody in the pro-life movement is completely aware of what Obama stands for — how bad he is,” she said.
Stanek, who was one of the protesters present at Obama’s announcement, said she thinks anti-abortionists “may be more up in arms” over Obama’s positions “than even Hillary Clinton’s” because of “his extreme position” on this specific issue. But she said she knows of no concerted effort to single Obama out for his support of abortion rights.
Joseph Scheidler, the founder of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League who helped lead the protests in Springfield last Saturday, took a similar line. He said that while his group “won’t concentrate on Obama,” he wanted to cut through a “ga-ga” media following to ensure that voters know the senator’s position on the issue.
“The others are all very clear about being pro-abortion,” he said. “Obama has been clever enough … to keep voters confused.”
Scheidler said anti-abortion groups around the country would make their presence known at campaign events for the Democratic candidates, and they might not reserve their criticisms for Democrats alone this year.
Scheidler said among the Republican candidates, only Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) is “the one we find to be pretty pure.”
He questioned former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s “complete turnaround” on the abortion debate and Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) leadership on the issue. He also described former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as “a nice guy” who is solidly in support of abortion rights, making him unqualified to lead the country, in his eyes.