Abortion is the key issue keeping many social conservatives and religious voters - especially young ones - from supporting pro-choice Democrat Barack Obama for president, leaving most of them to throw their support to his pro-life Republican opponent, John McCain.
A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of voter attitudes, released last week, showed that two-thirds of Catholics and white evangelical Protestants of all ages oppose funding for abortions for poor women overseas. Seventy percent of all evangelicals - with slightly larger majorities among those younger than 30 - say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
These same groups - which make up half of the American electorate - also supported the “Mexico City policy,” which forbids U.S. funding for organizations that perform abortions overseas. The largest bloc of supporters were young evangelical Christians at 69 percent.
Pollster Anna Greenberg acknowledged the intractability of the issue on Oct. 23, at a National Press Club forum sponsored by the United Nations Foundation and Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.
“While young evangelicals - and the public - have become more liberal on other social issues like gay marriage,” she said, “we do not see the same movement towards a liberal position on abortion.”
• Issues ‘08: The Washington Times takes a close look at an important issue every day before the elections.
Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat, has pledged to repeal of the Mexico City policy and cut domestic restrictions on abortion, a stance that the Republican Party has tried to highlight in various ads.
Foremost among them is a video clip of Mr. Obama’s July 17, 2007, vow to make abortion rights a centerpiece of his presidency.
“The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act [FOCA],” he said, a statement that got him a rousing ovation at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund gathering.
Referring to two fellow legislators, he said, “We fought in the Illinois State Senate against restrictive choice legislation - laws just like the federal abortion laws, federal abortion bans that are cropping up.”
In 2001, 2002 and 2003, Mr. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, opposed three legislative efforts to give legal protection to any child who survived an abortion. Mr. Obama has denied this, but on Aug. 25, the independent group FactCheck.org dissected the senator’s voting record to show that he indeed voted against legislation to protect such children.
FOCA, which has been simmering in Congress since 1989, would overturn dozens of state laws mandating parental consent. It would remove limits on Medicaid funding of abortions, eliminate informed consent for women who are considering the procedure, allow partial-birth and other late-term abortions, and end state requirements for counseling, waiting periods or ultrasounds before an abortion.
Mr. Obama has a 100 percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood, the nation’s foremost abortion provider.
“Barack Obama supports women’s health, has reasonable policies on comprehensive sex education, supports what works with kids and helps them make healthy choices,” said Laura Meyers, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Metropolitan Washington.
Mr. McCain has a 0 rating from the group. Even so, he does not line up with all pro-life positions because he would allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or to protect the mother’s life.
When asked - during an Aug. 16 forum at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. - when life begins, the senator from Arizona responded, “At the moment of conception.” To audience applause, he added, “I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate.
“And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president. And this presidency will have pro-life policies.”
Mr. Obama hedged on the question, saying the answer is “above my pay grade.”
He said the rate of abortions did not decline during the eight years of the Bush administration. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, however, reported that 108,600 fewer abortions were performed during President Bush’s fifth year in office (2005) than during President Clinton’s last year (2000). The data used allowed each president significant time in the office for any effects to take shape.
In September, the Guttmacher Institute said the rate of U.S. abortions - 2.1 million a year or 5,753 a day - is at its lowest level since 1974.
All this keeps it a front-and-center issue in U.S. politics.
“I have stated time after time after time that Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, that I support a woman - the rights of the unborn - that I have fought for human rights and human dignity throughout my entire political career,” Mr. McCain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2007. “To me, it’s an issue of human rights and human dignity.”
The two men parried on the topic during the third presidential debate at Hofstra University on Oct. 15, when Mr. Obama said he supports legal restrictions to late-term abortions, as long as there is a “health of the mother” exception.
“He’s ‘health for the mother,’” Mr. McCain responded sarcastically. “You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.”
Neither of the candidates differ significantly on stem-cell research, the other hot bioethics issue of the day. Mr. Obama supports federal financing of embryonic-stem-cell research and co-sponsored the 2005 Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which Mr. Bush vetoed.
Mr. McCain’s position is more nuanced. Although he too supports federal financing for experiments on cells that would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics, he also opposes the creation of embryos for research. He told Catholic News Service in January that he hopes the issue will become theoretical, given advances in obtaining stem cells from skin cells.