by Frank James
Jan Crawford Greenburg, our former Chicago Tribune colleague, now legal correspondent at ABC News, has a very valuable posting on her Legalities blog that should be causing teeth-gnashing over at Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign this weekend.
Jan picked up on an interview Obama did with Relevant Magazine in which the senator from Illinois said he opposed the mental-health exception that allows abortions to be performed in some cases after fetuses become viable.
As Jan writes:
Obama's remarks are printed verbatim in the interview, published yesterday in Relevant Magazine. Read them -- there's no mistaking that Obama says he no longer will support what's long been a cornerstone of the abortion rights debate: The Court's insistence that laws banning abortions after the fetus is viable (now about 22 weeks) contain an exception to allow doctors to perform them if necessary to protect a pregnant woman's mental health.
'I have repeatedly said that I think it's entirely appropriate for states to restrict or even prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a strict, well-defined exception for the health of the mother. Now, I don't think that 'mental distress' qualifies as the health of the mother," Obama said. "I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems to the mother carrying that child to term. Otherwise, as long as there is such a medical exception in place, I think we can prohibit late-term abortions."
This has been a central battleground issue in the Supreme Court going back 35 years, to Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, when the Court ruled a woman had a constitutional right to abortion. The decisions said state's can ban all abortions after the fetus is viable -- but that any restrictions must include exceptions to protect a woman's physical and emotional health.
Jan is right to say wow. This is something of a bombshell.
Between presidential candidates Obama and Sen. John McCain, Obama's the one most political observers would expect to protect the legs on the Roe v. Wade stool. McCain's obviously the one most would expect to see with a saw in his hand. But Obama apparently has one too.
What makes Obama's position on the late-term abortion mental-health exception even more head-scratching is reflected in these two additional paragraphs from Jan about proposed abortion legislation called the Freedom of Choice Act:
The Freedom of Choice Act specifically allows abortions after viability where necessary to protect a woman's health, and the legislation refers repeatedly to the guarantees of Roe and Doe, which protect the right to an abortion where necessary for a woman's physical and mental health.
One of its co-sponsors? Barack Obama.
As Jan would say, wow!
Jan and others have noted that Obama sided with conservatives on two notably controversial recent Supreme Court decisions.
He sided with the Supreme Court majority in the Washington D.C. gun-ban case in which the court in a landmark ruling overturned the city's gun-control law. In Kennedy v. Louisiana, in which the high court declared as unconstitutional the death penalty for child rapists, Obama sided with the conservative minority.
While Obama may have arrived at these positions on the merits, the Obama campaign will have to forgive many observers for being skeptical.
Having been dubbed, unfairly or not, the most liberal member of the Senate by National Journal, and winning more delegates for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination than Sen. Hillary Clinton largely because he was left of her on the Iraq War, it was expected that Obama would move to the political center once the primaries were over.
But it appears that he's not just moved to the center but, in some respects, gone past it.
The danger for Obama is that one of his greatest weakness with voters comes from his being relatively new to the national political scene. Many voters don't know very much about him.
Because he appears to be shifting so greatly on so many issues, including how quickly he'd withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq, he may be running the risks of reinforcing voter perceptions that he's too unknown and unpredicatable to entrust the nation's fate to.
And his apparent position on the mental-health exception to late-term abortions is only going to raise questions in the minds of many of the liberal activists who have helped him get this far. Some of the larger questions will be: what does he really believe and is he the person we thought we were voting for in the primaries?