I've tried hard to make sense of Barack Obama's various statements, stumbles, votes, and explanations related to abortion. With many of them, I haven't succeeded. I've come to the conclusion that he simply hasn't thought hard about the issue and that he's grossly unaware of many of the important background facts, both about the legal background and the general philosophical conversation about this important issue. I wanted to put my conclusions together in one post, with links to some of the places where I've spent more time on the details for some of these things.
1. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks it prohibits using the word 'person' for a prematurely-born infant. Supreme Court precedent does prohibit certain kinds of laws from restricting abortion, but it never does so by defining the moral status of a fetus (it simply ignores that issue as if it's unimportant) or by declaring anything about which human beings count as persons. I've discussed this issue at length here, with some followup discussion here, and those who were defending him in the comments didn't seem to me to have anything that really helped.
2. Obama misunderstands Supreme Court precedent so badly that he thinks he can require the kinds of exceptions to abortion that his voting record shows he insists on (and the Supreme Court has consistently required) while saying that mental health exceptions only mean diagnosed mental illnesses. This is not how pro-choice politicians opposing laws without mental health exceptions have based their opposition, and it's not how the Supreme Court has taken it. Any mental distress or psychological harm counts as a legitimate exception, according to Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and pretty much all abortion decisions the Supreme Court has rendered where it's come up. (The only exception is the one instance since the 80s when the conservatives have won the day, the second time the Supreme Court heard a case on a partial-birth abortion ban. The removal of the mental health exception there applies only to one method of late-term abortion and not to all late-term abortions.)
What's interesting about this is that it pulls Obama (1) to the left of the Supreme Court on the first issue, to the point of refusing to support a law that requires doctors to comfort and care for born infants who happen to be premature enough that it's unlikely but possible that they'll live and (2) to the right of the Supreme Court on the second issue, to the point of refusing to accept the limit on abortion restrictions that the Supreme Court has imposed, that any psychological trauma, even if not a diagnosed mental illness, can justify an abortion no matter what other circumstances occur (including bans against exactly that instance of abortion). So far there's no inconsistency.
But what Jan Crawford Greenburg points out is that Obama is on record opposing what he's been saying in #2. It's not just that he's on record saying it but has flipped to oppose it. He's currently supporting legislation that opposes his current position in #2, and he's promised that it will be a top priority upon assuming the office of president. The Freedom of Choice Act would basically remove all state and federal restrictions on abortion at any time and for any reason. Is Obama just talking out of both sides of his mouth? Or does he really not understand how badly he's mucked things up on this issue?
3. Obama is so ignorant of the philosophical literature on abortion that he thinks the only way anyone could be pro-life is if they simply hear a religious authority figure express a theological conviction and thus believe it on religious authority. At the Saddleback forum, he said he respects pro-lifers because their belief that life begins at conception is simply a core issue of faith. No, pro-lifers hold that life begins at conception because it's scientific fact. The deep irony of Democrats' accusations that Republicans are anti-science is that this common pro-choice line is as anti-science as you get (and see here for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi actually citing a religious authority in contradiction of science on this point). Life begins at conception. There's no doubt about that.
The important question isn't when life begins but when moral status begins, and that's in fact what Rick Warren asked Obama, but Obama dodged the question because he apparently doesn't think presidents have to know anything about the important moral philosophical issues that lie behind hard questions like this. The fact is that there's a long history of philosophical arguments not based on religious authority for a pro-life position, and most pro-lifers are aware enough of themtheir view is not simply the article of faith that he badly misrepresents it as, thus insulting pro-lifers while trying to appear nice to them.
4. Also at the Saddleback forum, he demonstrated that he somehow got the idea that abortions have gone up under the
current president, when they've consistently gone down for a long time,
including the entirety of President Bush's tenure. That's a pretty
important factual issue to get exactly backwards.
It's no surprise that he's talking as if he thinks presidents
shouldn't have to have any conclusions about this issue, since he
doesn't seem to be able to think about it carefully, clearly, or in
light of the facts. Yet for years he's consistently voted as if he does
have a view. According to that view, it's perfectly ok to allow people
to do something that, if the metaphysical question he refuses to answer
is really unclear, it may be very bad to allow. Yet it's above his pay
grade to do the background work required for any reasonable method of
arriving at a view on it, and thus he refuses to answer any questions
about the kind of thinking that he must simply never have done on this
issue and is still insistent on never doing. Either that or he's refusing to say what he thinks because he knows it won't go over well.
His attempts to express views have left him so muddled that he's
realized he can't pull it together and make a coherent story about what
he's said, and he's not going to try but instead will defer the
question to a higher authority. I see this often enough in undergrads
who have never had to think hard about the issue but have just accepted
a line they've been taught by others. It makes me wonder if he's really
just in the same category. He's never taken the time to do any serious
discussion of the issues with someone who has an opposite conclusion to
his after having thought about them, and thus when he interacts with
the issues publicly he just reveals himself to be ignorant of the legal
issues and not to have thought much about the philosophical issues.
Regardless of your views on abortion, I think it's fair to say that
this is not what we should want in a president.