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A matter of life

Campaign 2008 | In almost every way, John McCain and Barack Obama are on opposite sides of America's abortion divide

Issue: "Left behind," June 28, 2008

First in a series examining presidential candidates' positions on campaign issues

Long before Sen. Barack Obama secured the Democratic presidential nomination, the candidate mused about the first thing he would do as president.

At a Planned Parenthood gathering in Washington, D.C., last July, Obama told supporters of America's largest abortion network: "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act."

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The purpose of the pro-abortion legislation-first introduced in the Senate in 1989-is clear: "To prohibit, consistent with Roe v. Wade, the interference by the government with a woman's right to choose to bear a child or terminate a pregnancy." The bill has never passed Congress, but its intention is sweeping: Nullify most abortion restrictions already in place, and cut off attempts at further restrictions.

Obama's support for the bill doesn't come up much on the campaign trail. The candidate rarely mentions abortion outside of pro-abortion gatherings, and downplays the volatile issue to mixed crowds.

On the other side of the stump, Sen. John McCain is talking about abortion more than he has in the past. The presumptive Republican nominee is taking pains to point out his pro-life voting record, especially to some skeptical pro-life supporters.

In a campaign season dominated by the economy, the war, and the price of gasoline, pro-abortion and pro-life groups agree on one thing: The stakes in the abortion debate remain high, and the two presidential candidates largely represent opposite ends of the spectrum.

Obama spelled out those stakes on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade: "With one more vacancy on the Supreme Court, we could be looking at a majority hostile to a woman's fundamental right to choose for the first time since Roe v. Wade."

The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) agrees and recently endorsed Obama, calling him "a fully pro-choice candidate." The group gave Obama a 100 percent rating for supporting pro-abortion legislation in Congress.

NARAL gives McCain a zero percent rating for his "extreme anti-choice record," and asks for donations to help defeat his campaign.

One mile south of NARAL's Washington, D.C., headquarters, National Right to Life (NRTL) is adamant as well. The pro-life group-which endorsed Fred Thompson last year-now supports McCain, citing his voting record in Congress. Not surprisingly, it vigorously opposes Obama, also citing his voting record. NRTL president David O'Steen told WORLD: "I don't see how one could take a more pro-abortion position than Obama."

Examining the candidates' voting records reveals the kinds of policies each would likely support as president. Obama in the U.S. Senate has supported funding for overseas groups that promote or perform abortions and has opposed parental notification laws.

When he was an Illinois state senator, Obama instead of voting "yes" or "no" on abortion bills often voted "present." In 1997 Obama voted "present" on two bills banning partial-birth abortion. In 2001 he voted "present" on two parental notification bills. He voted "present" three times on bills aimed at protecting infants who survive abortions.

Pam Sutherland, president of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, said her group worked with Obama and a handful of other Democratic senators on the voting strategy. Sutherland said the tactic allowed senators to withhold support for pro-life bills without creating a record that could hurt them with voters. "A 'present' vote was hard to pigeonhole, which is exactly what Obama wanted," she told ABC News.

Despite voting "present" on the pro-life bills, Obama expressed strong opposition to them, saying they didn't include exceptions for the health of the mother, and that they would hold doctors criminally responsible for performing such abortions. Obama condemned the Supreme Court's decision last year to uphold the federal ban on partial-birth abortions, calling it an attempt to "steadily roll back the hard-won rights of American women."

In presidential debates, Obama has said he believes that states could legitimately put restrictions on some late-term abortions, but added, "The broader issue here is: Do women have the right to make these profoundly difficult decisions? And I trust them to do it."

McCain in the U.S. Senate voted for the partial-birth abortion ban, parental notification laws, banning abortions in military medical facilities, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, and dozens of other pro-life measures. NRTL's O'Steen told WORLD: "McCain has an absolutely solid and consistent pro-life voting record."

But the record isn't flawless. Some pro-life groups-including NRTL-have ardently disagreed with McCain-sponsored campaign finance laws that curtail attempts by nonprofit groups to influence voters toward particular candidates 60 days before an election.

A bigger problem for McCain among pro-life voters is his support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Pro-life groups oppose the research that requires destroying frozen embryos, and they express consternation over McCain's support of allocating tax dollars toward the work.

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