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A matter of life

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

A matter of life

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."

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.

Late last year, McCain told WORLD that he believes life begins at conception, but "the Bible also tells us to heal the sick," and he remains firmly committed to funding the research. O'Steen said NRTL disagrees with McCain on the embryonic stem cell issue, but that his overall voting record remained strong enough for McCain to win its support.

One other bump McCain might face: In 2000 the senator strongly argued for a change to the pro-life GOP platform, which calls for a human life amendment to the Constitution. McCain said it should include exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.

Republicans have resisted the change, and McCain hasn't indicated he'll push for it this year. But the issue could put the candidate in an awkward position this summer.

If the candidates' voting records reveal what they might do as president, so do their public statements. McCain says Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and has indicated he would nominate judges sympathetic to that view.

Obama has made abortion-related promises as well: In addition to supporting the Freedom of Choice Act, the senator opposes any constitutional amendment to ban abortion. He says he would defend Roe v. Wade and nominate justices who would do the same. He would also promote federal funding for sex education for teens, as well as funds for a public information campaign about "emergency contraception."

It's unclear how much Obama's abortion views will surface during the campaign, but it's clear that he doesn't plan to change those views: "On this issue," he told the Planned Parenthood gathering, " I will not yield."

On the record

Comparing candidates' life-related votes

1. Codify state health care option for unborn children.

Amendment to codify states' option to cover unborn children in SCHIP program, and define an unborn child as any phase of development in the womb

McCain: Yes; Obama: No

2. Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007

Mandated federal funding for embryonic stem cell research

McCain: Yes; Obama: Yes

3. Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act

Bill requiring abortionists to notify at least one parent before performing an abortion on a minor from another state

McCain: Yes; Obama: No

4. Funding for overseas pro-abortion groups

Amendment to nullify federal policy prohibiting federal funds for overseas groups that perform or promote abortions

McCain: No; Obama: Yes

5. Partial-birth abortion ban

Bill to ban partial-birth abortions, in which a baby is partially delivered before killed

McCain: Yes; Obama: * Not yet in U.S. Senate

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.