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Obama Botches the Abortion Conversation

Why is a candidate praised for his rhetorical gifts perpetuating irresponsible stereotypes about women who have abortions?
 
 
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Somewhere along Barack Obama's winding road through the red states, he lost me. It happened when he talked about women who are "feeling blue."

Obama says that these women should not be able to obtain a late-term abortion, because just "feeling blue" isn't the same as suffering "serious clinical mental health diseases." True enough. And totally infuriating.

During the recent Obama pander tour -- the one in which he spent about a week trying to win over conservative religious voters -- the presumptive Democratic nominee unnecessarily endorsed President Bush's faith-based initiative, a sort of patronage program that rewards religious activists for their political support with public grants. Then in a St. Louis speech, Obama declared that "I let Jesus Christ into my life." That's fine, but we already have a president who believes this was a qualification for the Oval Office, and look where that's gotten us.

Obama's verbal meanderings on the issue of late-term abortion go further. He has muddied his position. Whether this is a mistake or deliberate triangulation, only Obama knows for sure.

One thing is certain: Obama has backhandedly given credibility to the right-wing narrative that women who have abortions -- even those who go through the physically and mentally wrenching experience of a late-term abortion -- are frivolous and selfish creatures who might perhaps undergo this ordeal because they are "feeling blue."

The wordplay began when Obama, in an interview with the religious magazine Relevant, said he believes late-term abortions can be banned except in cases where "a serious physical issue ... arises in pregnancy, where there are real, significant problems with the mother carrying that child to term." In other words, a woman's emotional and psychological health would not be considered factors. Obama said he doesn't think "'mental distress' qualifies as the health of the mother."

Since this contradicts the landmark Roe v. Wade decision and subsequent court rulings that have upheld mental health exceptions to abortion bans, the campaign had to flip back from the flop. Obama spoke to reporters on his campaign plane and gave a definition of a mental health exception that goes like this: "It can be defined by serious, clinical mental health diseases. It is not just a matter of feeling blue." He noted that neither abortion-rights supporters nor the courts have ever interpreted a mental health exception that way.

They have not. Because this sort of language -- that women might have late-term abortions just because they feel "blue" -- is that of the anti-abortion lobby. As part of its campaign to ban the procedure, anti-abortion activists have consistently depicted women who have abortions as doing so for convenience, to get themselves out of an uncomfortable jam of their own making.

In all the years I have covered the incendiary politics of late-term abortion -- procedures that comprise only about 1 percent of abortions in the U.S. -- I have never come across a woman who terminated a pregnancy late because she was "feeling blue." I have interviewed married women who ended a planned pregnancy after it went catastrophically wrong. One was carrying a fetus whose brain had grown outside the skull. Another had endured months of unexplained and uncontrollable bleeding, only to discover after her abortion that the placenta was breaking up and being passed from her body.

The medical conditions these women suffered might or might not have been considered purely physical under a restrictive abortion law that a state legislature -- or the U.S. Congress -- might pass. Their lives weren't in direct jeopardy; the pregnancies were. They agonized over their choice. Did they feel "blue"? No. It was much, much worse than that. A campaign spokesman said Obama made the point about "feeling blue" to show that women do not make abortion decisions lightly. I do not question Obama's support for abortion rights; he's been clear that he supports keeping abortion legal.

But I do wonder why a candidate praised for his rhetorical gifts talks about women in the way that he does. During the primary campaign, he said Hillary Clinton launched political attacks on him "periodically, when she's feeling down." He called a Detroit reporter "sweetie" when she was trying to ask him about job creation. Now he has incorporated a myth created by the right -- that women who seek late-term abortions should not be allowed to do so if they are "feeling blue" -- into his own lexicon. And this is enough to make me see red.

Marie Cocco is a prize-winning syndicated columnist on political and cultural topics for The Washington Post Writers Group. She is a frequent commentator on national TV and radio shows.