WASHINGTON — It definitely wasn’t the focus that Sen. Barack Obama wanted as he prepared to go to Denver for the Aug. 25-28 Democratic National Convention.

Instead of a flood of positive articles about his presidential candidacy, the presumptive Democratic nominee faced sagging poll numbers and media attention on an issue that refuses to go away: his opposition to legislation that would protect babies who survive abortions.

The issue was thrust back into prominence in mid-August, after the National Right to Life Committee released evidence of Obama’s role as the Illinois state senator who took the lead in killing “born-alive” legislation that would have guaranteed medical care to infants who live for a short time after surviving “induced labor” abortions.

The pro-life group’s evidence contradicts Obama’s longstanding claim that he would have supported such legislation, so long as it contained a clause guaranteeing it would not affect laws regarding abortion.

It is a matter of public record that Obama opposed state “born-alive” protection bills in 2001 and 2002, while serving as a member of the Illinois Senate.

In 2001, he voted “present” on such a bill. That vote has the same effect as a No vote in the Illinois Legislature.

During debate over the 2001 legislation, Obama said he opposed it because it might undermine abortion rights.

“Whenever we define a pre-viable fetus as a person that is protected by the Equal Protection Clause or the 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 9-month-old — child that was delivered to term,” Obama said on the floor of the state Senate.

Added Obama, “That determination then, essentially, if it was accepted by a court, would forbid abortions to take place.”

Obama also voted against similar legislation in 2002. That same year, the federal Born Alive Infants Protection Act was approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed into law by President Bush.

Obama, who was sworn in as a U.S. senator in 2005, has insisted since 2004 that he would have supported the federal born-alive bill because, unlike the 2001 and 2002 Illinois bills, it contains a “neutrality” clause regarding abortion.

The clause states, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affirm, deny, expand, or contract any legal status or legal right applicable to any member of the species homo sapiens at any point prior to being ‘born alive’ as defined in this section.”

Awkward Facts

But renewed controversy over Obama’s position arose after the National Right to Life Committee issued an Aug. 11 press release documenting that Obama voted in 2003 against a third state born-alive bill with a “neutrality” clause specifying the legislation would not impact abortion rights.

On March 13, 2003, while serving as chairman of the Illinois Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, Obama voted in favor of an amendment to add the exact language contained in the federal born-alive bill’s “neutrality” clause. The amendment passed unanimously by a 10-0 vote.

But immediately afterward, Obama voted with a 6-4 committee majority to kill the amended born-alive bill, which now was virtually identical to the federal Born Alive Infants Protection Act.

Following the Aug. 11 press release, Obama initially said his pro-life critics were “lying.”

On Aug. 16, in a brief interview following his appearance in California at the Saddleback Civil Forum, Obama told Christian Broadcast Network national correspondent David Brody that the bill he opposed was different from the federal born-alive legislation.

“That was not the bill that was presented at the state level,” he said. “What that bill also was doing was trying to undermine Roe v. Wade.”

Said Obama about National Right to Life’s account of what happened, “And I hate to say that people are lying, but here’s a situation where folks are lying.”

The next day, however, The New York Sun reported that the Obama campaign was now admitting Obama had voted in 2003 against a bill identical to the federal one.

Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan said Obama and other state legislators who opposed the Illinois legislation were concerned it might undermine Illinois’ existing abortion law, whereas the federal bill could not affect federal abortion law because there isn’t one.

National Right to Life Committee legislative director Douglas Johnson told the Register Aug. 20 that while Obama had not apologized for claiming National Right to Life had lied, the pro-life group was pleased that Obama’s camp has finally acknowledged their candidate opposes born-alive legislation because of what Johnson described as Obama’s “reflexive” opposition to anything that he thinks might have even a remote possibility of restricting abortion rights.

Said Johnson, “That’s what the argument has always really been about.” He rejected another of Obama’s claims — that Illinois state law already protected infants who are born alive — saying the Illinois law Obama cited applies only to children who are developed enough that they can survive outside the womb. In contrast, “born-alive” bills are specifically targeted to deal with “pre-viable” babies who survive abortions but who will die within several hours because of their lack of development.

The bid to mandate medical care for the brief lives of such babies gained impetus after pro-life nurse Jill Stanek disclosed in 1999 that such infants were sometimes discarded and left to die unattended in her hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill.

As an Illinois legislator who took a close interest in the debates on the born-alive bills and who chaired the Senate committee that killed the 2003 version, Obama must have been fully aware of the legislation’s actual purpose, Johnson said.

Johnson said Obama’s “frantic attempts to change the subject and misrepresent what occurred” reflect his concern that widespread awareness of his extreme position on abortion will hurt his chances of victory in November.

Said Johnson, “If it comes into focus that Obama thinks the squirming baby on the counter is not a legally protected human if she is not yet deemed ‘viable,’ that will offend millions of Americans.”

‘Cold Heart’

There are indications that the issue will continue to resonate on the campaign trail.

On Aug. 19, the Associated Press and The New York Times were among a long list of major media outlets that reported at length on the continuing controversy over why Obama opposed the Illinois born-alive bills.

Both the AP and Times articles noted that the 2003 Illinois legislation and the federal legislation are virtually identical — in apparent contradiction of Obama’s Aug. 16 claim he would have supported a state bill modeled on the federal one.

Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff agrees that Obama’s born-alive position could prove very damaging with voters.

“There’s an old Hank Williams song, ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’” said Hentoff, who describes himself as a pro-life Jewish atheist. “And that’s the song that came to my mind when I first heard about this.”

As a registered Democrat, Hentoff said he had just received a mailing from the Obama campaign in which Obama declares, “We owe our children a better future.”

Said Hentoff, “Well, not all of them — not even all of them who are born alive.”

Tom McFeely is based

in Victoria, British Columbia.

INFORMATION Documentation of Obama’s 2003 actions is posted on National Right to Life’s website, at nrlc.org/ObamaBAIPA/Obamacoveruponbornalive.htm.