The tiny newborn baby made very little noise as he struggled to breathe. He lacked the strength to cry. He had been born four months premature.
“At that age,” says nurse Jill Stanek, “their lungs haven’t matured.”
Stanek is the nurse who found herself cradling this baby in her hands for all of his 45-minute lifetime. He was close to ten inches long and weighed perhaps half a pound. It’s just a guess — no one had weighed or measured him at birth. No happy family had been there to welcome him into the world. No one was trying to save his life now, putting him into an incubator, giving him oxygen or nourishment. He had just been left to die.
Stanek had seen it all happen. That family had wanted a baby, but when they learned that theirs would be born with Down syndrome, they wanted an abortion. For that, they went to Christ Hospital in the southwestern suburbs of Chicago, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.
In “induced labor” or “prostaglandin” abortion — a common procedure at the hospital — the doctor administers drugs that dilate the mother’s cervix and induce contractions, forcing a small baby out of the mother’s uterus. Most of the time, the baby dies in utero, killed by the force of the violent contractions. But it does not always work. Such abortions sometimes result in a premature baby being born alive. Sometimes the survivors live for just a few minutes, but sometimes for several hours. No one tried to save or treat them — it is hard to save someone you just mauled trying to kill. But something had to be done with them for the minutes and hours during which they struggled for air.
Stanek says her friend had been told to take this baby and leave him in a soiled utility closet. She offered to take him instead. “I couldn’t let him die alone,” she says.
Stanek was horrified by this experience. This was not an abortion — it was something worse. Could it be legal to take a living and breathing person of any size, already born and outside his mother’s womb, and just leave him to die, without any thought of treatment?
Hospital officials dismissed Stanek’s concerns. She then approached the Republican attorney general of Illinois, Jim Ryan, who issued a finding several months later that Christ Hospital was doing nothing illegal under the laws of Illinois. Doctors had no ethical or legal obligation to treat these premature babies. They had passed the bright line of birth that had effectively limited the right to life since the Roe v. Wade decision, but under the law they were non-persons.
Stanek’s effort to right this wrong would lead her to testify before various committees. It would lead her to a state senator, Patrick O’Malley, who would propose a bill to stop what was going on at the hospital.
Her attempt to change a corrupt medical practice and bring hope to defenseless infants would put her on a collision course with a state senator named Barack Obama.
On March 30, 2001, Obama was the only senator to speak in opposition to a bill that would have banned the practice of leaving premature abortion survivors to die. The bill, SB 1095, was carefully limited, its language unambiguous. It applied only to premature babies, already born alive. It stated simply that under Illinois law, “the words ‘person,’ ‘human being,’ ‘child,’ and ‘individual’ include every infant member of the species homo sapiens who is born alive at any stage of development.”
Two related bills introduced that day included slightly more controversial provisions about liability and medical procedure, but SB 1095 did not go nearly that far. This bill did not apply to those not born, nor did it grant born persons anything beyond recognition of their rights as persons.
Under this bill, SB 1095, babies born alive during an abortion would have to be treated just like every other baby that is born alive and prematurely — not left to die as at Christ Hospital, but given treatment according to an acting physician’s medical judgment as to what is necessary and what is possible — the same standard that applies to any other human being.
There was no legal conflict between this bill and the right to legal abortion, but Barack Obama was still uneasy with the idea. He and 11 other senators would vote “present” in a strategy worked out with Planned Parenthood lobbyists (“present” votes in the Illinois senate essentially count as “no” votes). The bill would pass the Senate easily with a bipartisan majority, only to die in a House committee.
Here is what Obama said on the Senate floor that day in opposition to the bill:
“There was some suggestion that we might be able to craft something that might meet constitutional muster with respect to caring for fetuses or children who were delivered in this fashion. Unfortunately, this bill goes a little bit further, and so … this is probably not going to survive constitutional scrutiny. Number one, whenever we define a pre-viable fetus as a person that is protected by the equal protection clause or other elements in the Constitution, what we’re really saying is, in fact, that they are persons that are entitled to the kinds of protections that would be provided to a — a child, a nine-month-old — child that was delivered to term. That determination, then, essentially, if it was accepted by a court, would forbid abortions to take place. I mean, it — it would essentially bar abortions, because the equal protection clause does not allow somebody to kill a child, and if this is a child, then this would be an antiabortion statute.”
The absurd conclusion of Obama’s argument is hard to miss. He implies that “pre-viable” babies born prematurely, even without abortions, are somehow less “persons” than are babies who undergo nine months’ gestation before birth.
But even this is not the most important part of his argument. That would be his first sentence — the one about “caring for fetuses or children who were delivered in this fashion.” He seems open to this idea. And he does not state explicitly that a pre-viable, premature baby is not a “person.” Rather, he is arguing that the question of their personhood is a moot point. Even if the state should perhaps provide care for these babies, any recognition of their personhood might threaten someone’s right to an abortion somewhere down the road. That made the bill unacceptable to him.
Most people, whatever their view on abortion, agree that the Constitution at least guarantees the rights of born and living human beings. Barack Obama does not agree. For him, the Constitution exists primarily in order to guarantee the right to abortion, and other rights of human persons — born and alive — are secondary. Beginning with abortion rights as his premise, he draws as his conclusion the unfortunate but necessary legality of infanticide.
Given Obama’s position on babies born alive, it should come as no surprise that he opposes and denounces all restrictions on every kind of abortion, including partial-birth abortions. He promised at a Planned Parenthood event in July 2007 that “the first thing” he will do as president — his top priority for the nation — is sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which would erase every federal and state restriction on abortion, no matter how modest. His top priority, again, is to re-legalize partial birth abortion under all circumstances, abolish all laws on informed consent and parental notification, and eliminate all state restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortions.
No humanitarian impulse or consideration of bipartisanship has ever swayed Barack Obama’s legislative mind on the issue of abortion. Pro-life voters who try to convince themselves otherwise engage in willful self-deception.
Obama would speak against the born-alive protection bill once again when it was proposed in 2002, and he would kill the bill when it came before the committee he chaired in 2003, after Democrats had taken control of the Illinois General Assembly. His is a radical position that most abortion-choice advocates do not share.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) does not share his position. In 2001, just three months after Obama inveighed against protecting premature babies in Illinois, the United States Senate voted on the language of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. It contained no significant legal differences from the Illinois bill, but it did contain even more specific and redundant language stating that the bill did not apply to the unborn, only those already born.
But in case there is any ambiguity, the federal bill was identical, word for word, to the bill that Obama voted to kill two years later in the Illinois senate health committee, which he chaired. Obama’s work to kill the bill in 2003 has always been attested to by witnesses (committee records are poorly kept in Springfield), but yesterday the National Right to Life Committee found and revealed the document showing definitively that Obama had voted against it in committee — against the exact same bill he is now falsely claiming on his own campaign website that he would have supported.
On June 29, 2001, Boxer had spoken in favor of that same bill, the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, on the floor of the U.S. Senate: “Of course, we believe everyone born should deserve the protections of this bill,” she said. “Who could be more vulnerable than a newborn baby? So, of course, we agree with that.…We join with an ‘aye’ vote on this. I hope it will, in fact, be unanimous.” It was unanimous: 98–0. Even Hillary Clinton voted for it.
At the time Boxer spoke enthusiastically in favor of protecting premature babies, she had a 100-percent lifetime voting score from NARAL and a 100 percent score from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. She was also a leader on the abortion issue. She was the greatest ally that abortion-choice advocates had in the United States Senate.
At least she was until 2005, the year Barack Obama was sworn in.