For the first time in a presidential debate, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama tonight went at it on abortion, and they had a fairly lengthy exchange on the issue (video is below). Each said he did not have a litmus test for choosing a Supreme Court justice, but McCain said he believed Roe vs. Wade was a "bad" decision, while Obama defended it.
McCain criticized Obama’s record on abortion in the Illinois state Senate, saying that Obama voted against “a law that would provide immediate medical attention to a child born of a failed abortion” and also against a ban on partial-birth abortion. "I don't know how you align yourself with the extreme aspect of the pro-abortion movement in America," McCain said. "And that's his record."
Obama responded by saying that the medical attention measure was duplicative of an existing law, would have undermined Roe vs. Wade, and was opposed by the Illinois Medical Society. On partial-birth abortion, Obama said he supports a ban but only with an exception for the mother’s health and life. Obama also said "Roe versus Wade probably hangs in the balance" this presidential election, because the next president is likely to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice. And Obama cited "religious advisers" as among those with whom a pregnant woman could consult about whether to have an abortion.
In their discussion, the candidates touched on the question of abortion reduction, which is a theme in the abortion debate this year. An excerpt from Obama’s comments:
"This is an issue that -- look, it divides us. And in some ways, it may be difficult to -- to reconcile the two views. But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, 'We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.' Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that's where we can find some common ground, because nobody's pro-abortion. I think it's always a tragic situation. We should try to reduce these circumstances."
McCain said "We have to change the culture of America," but also said that the effort at abortion reduction does not change legislative strategy for anti-abortion people. An excerpt from McCain:
"Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama. He's health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, 'health.' But, look, Cindy and I are adoptive parents. We know what a treasure and joy it is to have an adopted child in our lives. We'll do everything we can to improve adoption in this country. But that does not mean that we will cease to protect the rights of the unborn. Of course, we have to come together. Of course, we have to work together, and, of course, it's vital that we do so and help these young women who are facing such a difficult decision, with a compassion, that we'll help them with the adoptive services, with the courage to bring that child into this world and we'll help take care of it."
A couple of other observations on the debate from the perspective of a religion writer: at the close of the debate, there was an exchange about school vouchers, which McCain supports and Obama opposes, but no specific discussion about the impact on religious schools.
And, once again, there was no mention of God.
(Photo, by Gary Hershorn/AP, shows Obama and McCain at their final debate, at Hofstra University in New York.)