Posted by: iam0nly1 | July 4, 2008

Obama Caves on Choice: Mental Distress Not a Health Exception [Update]

Senator Obama has consistently claimed to be a pro-choice progressive. However, there have been several alarm bells signaling he is not as progressive or pro-choice as he claims.

His seven ‘present’ votes on choice, including a ban on “partial-birth abortion,” two parental notification laws and three ‘born alive’ bills, were worrisome. Especially since Illinois Planned Parenthood president, Pam Sutherland had this to say:

Speaking to ABC News as Obama was preparing to join Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and the wife of Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., in addressing Planned Parenthood’s national conference in Washington, D.C., Sutherland said Obama approached her in the late 1990s and worked with her and others in crafting the strategy of voting “present.” She remembers meeting with Obama outside of the Illinois Senate chambers on the Democratic side of the aisle. She and Obama finished their conversation in his office.

“He came to me and said: ‘My members are being attacked. We need to figure out a way to protect members and to protect women,’ ” said Sutherland in recounting her conversation with Obama. “A ‘present’ vote was hard to pigeonhole which is exactly what Obama wanted.”

“What it did,” she continued, “was give cover to moderate Democrats who wanted to vote with us but were afraid to do so” because of how their votes would be used against them electorally. “A ‘present’ vote would protect them. Your senator voted ‘present.’ Most of the electorate is not going to know what that means.”

While Sutherland was happy to give Obama latitude in voting “present,” rather than “no,” she was quick to note that “it’s also not a ‘yes’ vote.”

As reported by The Wall Street Journal, some of the specific abortion votes in question include two occasions in 1997 (HB 382 and SB 230) when he voted “present” on bills which would have prohibited a procedure referred to by its critics as “partial-birth abortion.” In 2001, he voted “present” on two parental notification abortion bills (HB 1900 and SB 562), and he voted “present” on a series of bills (SB 1093, 1094, 1095) that sought to protect a child if he or she survived a failed abortion. 

It was upsetting that he was “in the closet,” per se, concerning his unyielding support for choice, and along with Sutherland, we noted it wasn’t a ‘yes’ vote. Was he really with us on these issues, or was he planning on using these votes as a way to gain ground with Republicans. There was no way to now, until he said this, which was not only an indication of the latter, but also infuriating:

The mistake pro-choice forces have sometimes made in the past, and this is a generalization . . . has been to not acknowledge the wrenching moral issues involved,” he said. “And so the debate got so polarized that both sides tended to exaggerate the other side’s positions. Most Americans, I think, recognize that what we want to do is avoid, or help people avoid, making this difficult choice. That nobody is pro-abortion — abortions are never a good thing.” [emphasis mine]

“Pro-choice forces”?!?! Really? We don’t “acknowledge the wrenching moral issues involved”?!? That’s surprising, because I thought if anyone acknowledged and understood the “wrenching” nature of abortion it was the women who had to make the choice! Oh, yeah, I’m sure we all appreciate his addition to the all the shame, guilt and stigma of abortion with his “abortions are never a good thing” line, because that’s exactly what rape and incest victims need to hear. Also, I’m sure the woman who had to have an abortion to save her life really appreciated that sentiment as well. 

But it is not those words or what he communicated with his ‘present’ votes that is the most upsetting. His newest statements are not only offensive, but intolerable. 

In an interview this week with “Relevant,” a Christian magazine, Obama said prohibitions on late-term abortions must contain “a strict, well defined exception for the health of the mother.”

Obama then added: “Now, I don’t think that ‘mental distress’ qualifies as the health of the mother. 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.”

Last year, after the Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on late-term abortions, Obama said he “strongly disagreed” with the ruling because it “dramatically departs form previous precedents safeguarding the health of pregnant women.”

The health care exception is crucial to abortion rights advocates and is considered a legal loophole by abortion opponents. By limiting the health exception to a “serious physical issue,” Obama set himself apart from other abortion rights proponents.

The official position of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights group that endorsed Obama in May, states: “A health exception must also account for the mental health problems that may occur in pregnancy. Severe fetal anomalies, for example, can exact a tremendous emotional toll on a pregnant woman and her family.

The 1973 landmark abortion case, Roe v. Wade, established a right to an abortion, and a concurrent case, Doe v. Bolton, established that medical judgments about the need for an abortion could include physical, emotional and psychological health factors. [emphasis mine]

In an unprompted pander, Senator Obama has contradicted NARAL, previous pro-choice Supreme Court decisions, and the majority of pro-choice Americans.

Even pro-lifers understand that Senator Obama’s words don’t make much sense in a pro-choice framework:

David N. O’Steen, the executive director of National Right to Life, said Obama’s remarks to the magazine “are either quite disingenuous or they reflect that Obama does not know what he is talking about.”

You cannot believe that abortion should not be allowed for mental health reasons and support Roe v Wade,” O’Steen said.

Further, Senator Obama’s anti-choice pander is patronizing and offensive. Implying that mental distress in pregnant women is not “real” or “significant” is patently sexist. It revives and relies on the stereotypical notions of women suffering from “hysterics” who simply need to be prescribed Valium and confined to a bed in a dark room. 

Senator Obama doesn’t seem to have a problem with mental health care in general, claiming on his site that he will work to improve mental health care:

Improve Mental Health Care. Mental illness affects approximately one in five American families. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that untreated mental illnesses cost the U.S. more than $100 billion per year. As president, Obama will support mental health parity so that coverage for serious mental illnesses are provided on the same terms and conditions as other illnesses and diseases.

So, what is it about pregnant women that makes their “mental distress” in-equivalent to physical complications they may encounter? Claiming the late-term nature of the abortion should exclude mental health as a consideration doesn’t fly, because the “partial-birth/late-term” abortion scare tactics are a ruse. 

 Planned Parenthood explains:

Q6. What is a “partial-birth abortion”? Is this law about “late-term” or “third- trimester” abortions?A6. The Act defines the term “partial-birth abortion” so broadly that it would prohibit a wide range of abortions performed in the second trimester. Indeed, there is no such medical term as “partial-birth abortion.” Nor is this law about third-trimester abortions. Forty states and the District of Columbia already ban third-trimester abortions except when the life or health of the woman is at stake. Instead, the broad language of the law would ban abortions as early as 12 to 15 weeks, and it fails to include a health exception to protect women.

Q7. When do most abortions occur? 

A7. The overwhelming majority of abortions are performed in the first trimester of pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 58 percent of legal abortions occur within the first eight weeks of gestation, and 88 percent are performed within the first 12 weeks (based on the most recent data from 2000). Just over 10 percent are performed between 13 and 20 weeks. Less than one-half-of-one percent occur after 24 weeks. [emphasis mine]

In short, this shouldn’t even be an issue. Begging the question: Just whose side is Senator Obama on when it comes to choice? Not only is he playing on the Right’s playing field, but he is scoring points for them. The Right has essentially made up the term “partial-birth abortion” to gin up votes and to severely limit access to abortion. Not only is Senator Obama legitimizing the Right’s memes, he has now effectively said that mental health should not be a criteria for women seeking abortions as early as 12 to 15 weeks. Senator Obama must know that removing mental health as a health criteria only serves to limit access to abortion for women who are in medical need of them. That he is now considered the standard bearer for the Democratic Party and its pro-choice platform is more than disappointing. It’s enough to make one Just Say No Deal.

[UPDATE] Apparently Obama has felt the need to “clarify” is remarks. 

ABC Reports:

In clarifying his remarks, Obama said this afternoon that he has “consistently” said health exceptions are required for laws banning or seriously restricting abortion. But he then goes on to try to carve out exceptions to the exceptions, and he ends up suggesting, again, he would support more limits on abortion than the law currently allows.

Speaking to reporters on his campaign plane, Obama said mental health exceptions—which are a real battleground issue in the abortion debate–can be “rigorously” limited to only those women with “serious clinical mental health diseases.” He said mental health exceptions are not intended permit abortions when a woman simply “doesn’t feel good.”

“It is not just a matter of feeling blue,” Obama said.

Here’s the problem with that, and why Obama’s remarks are so startling.  Obama is trying to restrict abortions after 22 weeks to those women who have a serious disease or illness. But the law today also covers some women who are in “mental distress,” those women who would suffer emotional and psychological harm without an abortion.


This standard has long been understood to require less than “serious clinical mental health disease.”  Women today don’t have to show they are suffering from a “serious clinical mental health disease” or “mental illness” before getting an abortion post-viability, as Obama now says is appropriate.

And for 35 years—since Roe v. Wade—they’ve never had to show that.

So Obama, it seems to me, still is backing away from what the law says—and backing away from a proposed federal law (of which he is a co-sponsor) that envisions a much broader definition of mental health than the one he laid out this week.

Yes, he’s still backing away, and quick, from federal and judicial precedent and backing pregnant women into a corner. Here’s his statement in its entirety:

“My only point is this-historically I have been a strong believer in a women’s right to choose with her doctor, her pastor and her family,” Obama said. “I have consistently been saying that you have to have a health exception on many significant restrictions or bans on abortions, including late-term abortions.


“In the past, there has been some fear on the part of people who–not only people who are anti-abortion, but people who may be in the middle–that that means that if a woman just doesn’t feel good then that is an exception.  That’s never been the case.  I don’t think that is how it has been interpreted.

“My only point is that in an area like partial birth abortion having a mental, having a health exception can be defined rigorously,” Obama continued.

“It can be defined through physical health. It can be defined by serious clinical mental health diseases.  It is not just a matter of feeling blue. I don’t think that’s how pro-choice folks have interpreted it.  I don’t think that’s how the courts have interpreted it and I think that’s important to emphasize and understand.”

Here’s my question Senator Obama: how are Democrats supposed to win the debate when you are using Republican memes like “partial birth abortion”? Further, exactly who is served by you giving voice to and legitimizing ignorant and sexist claims that women are seeking abortions 22 weeks into gestation because “they are feeling blue”?  Seems you think a lot of women do things like seek abortions, or point out inconsistencies in your campaign rhetoric because “periodically” we are “feeling down.”  

And whose vote are you trying to win by claiming that a woman has “a right to choose with her doctor, her pastor and her family.” Last time I checked my right to choose started and ended with me. But I guess emotionally unstable women can’t be trusted to make their own decisions. I hope you’re not planning on changing even more Court precedent by making it a legal requirement that a woman gets permission from her pastor (how about Rev. Wright?!?) and her family (most likely her husband or father, of course). 

In short, Senator Obama, you’re not winning any core Democratic votes, much less the women you and your surrogates have been trying to strong arm and blackmail with Roe v Wade and the Supreme Court into voting for you against their better judgment, by capitulating to the far Right on abortion.

No need to “clarify” because we know what you really meant…you don’t need or want our votes. Fine, win without us.



  1. To “real democrat”:

    What you don’t realize is that Obama is not a Democrat. He is wholly owned and supported by the very same big corporations that own the Republicans. He is a snake, a decoy, a fake, a fraud.

    Read these articles, then see what you think about his Democratic credentials.

    Obama’s Money Cartel, by Pam Martens

    Why Obama Represents Bush’s Third Term, by Rosemary Regello

  2. Obviously lots of Republican pro-life supporters or as they occasionally call themselves “Democrats for life” are on this anti-Obama pro-McCain site.

    PRO CHOICE is about a woman’s right to choose. You all have your right to comment on it, but fundamentally every citizen of this country should have the right to control their own bodies. This is not a ‘done deal’ loss. This is a fundamental right that will be fought for and is supported by the Democratic party.

    As an actual Democrat, there is no question who I will support. A Democrat. Barak Obama.

    Here are just a few reasons why: Republicans squander the public funds on unnecessary wars that are started and continued soley to control the flow of oil and make some wealthy folks wealthier.

    Republicans de-regulated oil prices, leading to our current $4 and soon to be $5 a gallon at the pump.

    Republicans are sending our jobs overseas

    Republicans are lowering taxes on the wealthy and calling it a tax break. Again robbing our nation of needed capital and giving it to those who do not need it.

    Republicans started ‘trickle down’ economics and ‘trickle down’ social funding … does anyone actually see anything trickling? People with Mental Health issues are put out on the street as the homeless. We are immune to it. They are sleeping in gutters all over this country. Prior to ‘trickle down’ we had mental facilities to care for them and jobs for people interested in the field.

    During the 8-years of Democrats in the white house. we had MORE JOBS and a positive economy, we balanced the budget and worked on lowering the debt. Just say this in the negative to that sentence, and that is just a taste of what has happened during the 8 years of George Bush.

    Democrats support civil unions and do not make it their mandate to stop Gay Marriage by passing a federal ‘Defense of Marraiage’, give me a break!

    Democrats as a party are committed to Pro-Choice.

    Democrats as a party are committed to EQUALITY and EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK.

    Democrats as a party are committed to Affordable Health Care for all people in this country.

    Democrats as a party are committed to Barak Obama.

    Demorats as a party are committed to getting out troops out of Iraq.

    Democrats as a party are committed to providing incientives for Renewable sources of energy and curbing global warming.

    Democrats as a party are committed to the safety and prosperity of this country, while guarding the rights of all citizens and supporting the constitution.

    The choice is SIMPLE.

    Vote Democrat.
    Vote for Barak Obama 2008.

  3. Jackie,

    Not sure when or who mentioned “the race card” in or in regards to this post, but your question is well taken.

    I’m not sure if anxiety would count. If the women in the socioeconomic position you speak of did have diagnosable anxiety, I’m not sure they would have the access to a mental health professional to gain that diagnosis. This also brings into issue the current plight of impoverished women and their lack of access to safe and legal abortions.

    Good question though.

  4. My question in regards to this post would be : Obama (Keep in mind I didn’t bring up the race card, but since you and your associates brought it up ) I think I will use it as well….. With so many African American fathers are faced with responsibilities of be coming parents, and being unprepared that they look to illegal behaviors to try to full fill the father role. This is not easy task due to the fact they had no father in their lives to teach them how to be fathers…..

    I am curious to know whether being African American and feeling overwhelmed with the likley hood becoming a single mother that lacks the ability to rise above the poverty level while working two, to three jobs at a time while their children are raised on the street. A child who looks for a sence of belonging, and ends up it the gang….. Would this be considered a serious clinical mental health diseases. A.K.A Anxiety? Women should have the right to choose becausae if they them selves know whether or not they feel ready and able to be loving nurturing mother….. Or if the cycle of gangs become the place where her child ends up…..

    Oh sure foster parent’s are far and few are qualified to work with mentally and emotional children who feels rejected especially if the child lacks the ability to thrive….. Or better yet you have babies found in dumpster, hospital, front porches, and/or possibly your local wal-mart store…..Either way you have deemed this child to a world of aloneness…..

  5. Lambert,

    WORM is exactly right! I couldn’t remember where I read the acronym first, thank you.

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