Republican Convention

Conservative Activists at GOP Convention Doggedly Focus on Abortion

Many Republicans are determined to make abortion a campaign issue—and air ads attacking Obama as a pro-abortion extremist. By Michelle Goldberg

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

There were quite a few Todd Akin for Senate stickers at the lunchtime gathering cosponsored by the Family Research Council and RNC for Life on Tuesday. It was an event that felt like a flashback to the primaries, with speeches by Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann—candidates who rallied the hopes of voters eager for a culture-war campaign. Resigned to the reality that their presidential nominee will not be an anti-abortion crusader, Akin supporters weren’t ready to see another one of their champions pushed aside. “Todd is a wonderful man,” said Mary Johnson, a Missouri delegate. “He made a statement that people are blowing out of proportion.”

Asked how she feels about how her party is treating him, she was cautious about giving a journalist fuel for a story about Republican dissension. “I don’t know that I want to go there,” she said.

Anti-abortion activists were careful not to criticize Mitt Romney on Tuesday, even though he has refused to embrace the call for an absolute abortion ban in the GOP platform. But it’s clear that unlike Romney, many are eager to take the fight over social issues to the Democrats. “On values issues, the Republican Party doesn’t have anything to feel defensive about or nervous about,” said religious-right stalwart Gary Bauer. “The Akin episode was unfortunate, but it was a verbal gaffe. In contrast, the president has an extremist view on abortion.”

Expect to hear a lot more of that. The idea that Obama is a pro-abortion fanatic, even a supporter of infanticide, has quickly become a major right-wing talking point. “There’s no doubt that this president is the abortion president,” New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith told me. Newt Gingrich recently called Obama the “most extreme, pro-abortion president in U.S. history.” The Susan B. Anthony List is spending $150,000 on TV ads in Missouri hitting Obama on abortion, and may extend the campaign to North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Bauer, working with a super PAC, has purchased $50,000 worth of advertising time to blast Obama on social issues during the Democratic National Convention.

Much of the new campaign revolves around Obama’s vote against multiple iterations of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act when he was in the Illinois State Senate. The right tried to use this against Obama in 2008, leading to look into claims that Obama supported infanticide. As FactCheck noted, at the time of Obama’s vote, “Illinois law already provided that physicians must protect the life of a fetus when there is ‘a reasonable likelihood of sustained survival of the fetus outside the womb, with or without artificial support.’” The Born Alive law would have gone further, giving rights to any fetus that showed vital signs, whether or not it had a chance of survival; pro-choice activists viewed it as a back-door attack on Roe v. Wade. Obama voiced his support for a federal version of the bill, signed by George W. Bush, that explicitly said that it would not infringe on Roe.

From this was born the right-wing argument, now being obsessively recapitulated, that Obama voted to allow doctors to kill babies born after failed abortions. The Susan B. Anthony List ad does an especially visceral job of making this case. It features activist Melissa Ohden, who says she was born after a botched saline abortion in 1977. “I’m going to tell you something you might not know,” she says in the spot. “Many children, more than you might think, actually survive failed abortions and are born alive. I know because I’m one of them.” Obama, she says, “voted to deny basic constitutional protections for babies born alive from an abortion, not once, but four times.”

The ad is deceptive, but also powerful. Once it starts airing, though, it’s going to be hard for Republicans to keep insisting that Democrats are forcing social issues to the forefront of this campaign as a diversion from a weak economy. Romney may be desperate to steer this race away from issues of sex and reproduction, but his party isn’t going to let him.