By James D. Agresti
February 25, 2012
In a fact check of Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate on CNN, Associated Press reporters Calvin Woodward and Tom Raum take Newt Gingrich to task for stating:
If we’re going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama, who as a state senator voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion.
Citing the above statement in a list of what they call “head-scratching claims,” Woodward and Raum challenge it as follows:
THE FACTS: As an Illinois state senator, Obama voted against legislation promoted by anti-abortion activists that would have conferred protection to fetuses showing any signs of life after an abortion, even if doctors did not believe the fetus was viable. Obama pointed to an existing Illinois law requiring doctors to protect fetuses they believed were likely to survive after an abortion, and said he was concerned the proposed new law was so broad it could interfere with routine abortions. Obama said he would have supported federal legislation President George W. Bush signed in 2002 that would protect a viable fetus but reaffirmed a woman’s right to an abortion.
First, Woodward and Raum uncritically relay Obama’s assertion that the proposed law was so broad it could interfere with routine abortions, but the law specifically applied only to those who were “born alive.”
Second, although Obama has alleged that he would have voted for the bill that Bush signed in 2002, Obama’s claim is at odds with the fact that he later voted to kill legislation with the same operative language. This vote took place on March 12, 2003 in an Illinois Senate committee that Obama was chairing. The bill was practically a word-for-word replica of the federal bill that Bush had signed, except that it applied on a state level.
Third, the legislation that Bush signed in 2002 is not limited to protecting “a viable fetus” as the AP asserts. Instead, it protects anyone “born alive” who “breathes or has a beating heart, pulsation of the umbilical cord, or definite movement of voluntary muscles….” The law makes no distinction based upon viability.
Fourth, Woodward and Raum convey Obama’s claim that existing Illinois law already required “doctors to protect fetuses they believed were likely to survive after an abortion,” but they fail to mention what this law did not protect. The law did not require doctors who perform abortions to care for those who survived. Instead, the law required that a second doctor be present at the abortion to provide such care if the abortionist determined beforehand that the fetus was “viable.” Thus, the law provided little protection for those who were not deemed “viable” in the “judgment” of the abortionist. Consequently, aborted infants in Illinois sometimes lived for hours after birth while being abandoned to die without any care or comfort provided to them.
Finally, Woodward and Raum label live-born humans as “fetuses,” when in fact, the term “fetus” refers to “humans from nine weeks after fertilization until birth.” All of the legislation in question was applicable to humans who are “born alive” after “complete expulsion or extraction” from their mothers. Hence, these are not fetuses but newborns. Notice in the following statement about this issue how the Royal College of Obstetricians uses the word “fetus” before birth and the word “baby” afterwards:
If the fetus has had a lethal injection, it will normally die. However, there are some instances when there are signs of life at birth. All babies must be treated with dignity and respect. Palliative care should be provided till the baby dies where relevant.
Although journalism guidelines disparage the use of medical jargon in articles for the general public, journalists selectively employ and misuse such verbiage in their coverage of the abortion issue. It is not just the Associated Press that has misapplied the word “fetus” but also the New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Fox News, and CNN.
Regardless of the AP’s errors, Newt’s claim that Obama “voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion” is debatable. The preexisting law made it a felony to perform an abortion on a “viable” fetus while “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” failing “to arrange for the attendance of” a second physician to provide “immediate medical care to a child” who is born alive. On the other hand, the determination of viability was subjective, and the law did not prohibit doctors from leaving nonviable newborns to suffer and die without care.
In sum, Obama voted against three bills stating that anyone “born alive at any stage of development” is considered a “person” under Illinois state law including those born as a result of “abortion.” He did this in the face of sworn testimony from Illinois nurses who witnessed aborted newborns living and being neglected for up to eight hours after birth. These are the straightforward and unadorned facts of the matter.