Obama: Freedom of Choice Act "Not Highest Legislative Priority"

By Christine Cupaiuolo — April 30, 2009

Now that we’re over the 100-day hoopla, what did you think of President Obama’s remarks last night concerning abortion and the Freedom of Choice Act?

In a speech Obama gave to Planned Parenthood Action Fund on July 17, 2007, the then-presidential candidate said, “The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act.” He referenced it again in 2008, on the 35th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Of course, Congress first would have to pass FOCA. And to do that, the bill would have to be introduced. As Amy Sullivan explained earlier this year, there’s little chance of that happening anytime soon — but that reality hasn’t stopped anti-choice crusaders from making its defeat one of their top legislative priorities.

The question was asked by CNN senior White House correspondent Ed Henry. My thoughts are below.

* * * *

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. In a couple of weeks, you’re going to be giving the commencement at Notre Dame. And, as you know, this has caused a lot of controversy among Catholics who are opposed to your position on abortion.

As a candidate, you vowed that one of the very things you wanted to do was sign the Freedom of Choice Act, which, as you know, would eliminate federal, state and local restrictions on abortion. And at one point in the campaign when asked about abortion and life, you said that it was above — quote, above my pay grade.

Now that you’ve been president for 100 days, obviously, your pay grade is a little higher than when you were a senator.

Do you still hope that Congress quickly sends you the Freedom of Choice Act so you can sign it?

OBAMA: You know, the — my view on — on abortion, I think, has been very consistent. I think abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue.

I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they — if they suggest — and I don’t want to create straw men here, but I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women’s freedom and that there’s no other considerations. I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with and families and individual women have to wrestle with.

The reason I’m pro-choice is because I don’t think women take that — that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day. And I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a president of the United States, in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their clergy.

So — so that has been my consistent position. The other thing that I said consistently during the campaign is I would like to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion, or at least considering getting an abortion, particularly if we can reduce the number of teen pregnancies, which has started to spike up again.

And so I’ve got a task force within the Domestic Policy Council in the West Wing of the White House that is working with groups both in the pro-choice camp and in the pro-life camp, to see if we can arrive at some consensus on that.

Now, the Freedom of Choice Act is not highest legislative priority. I believe that women should have the right to choose. But I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that’s — that’s where I’m going to focus.

* * * *

I understand why, with 1,063 pressing concerns — and with an excellent record so far on women’s reproductive health here and abroad — Obama is not prioritizing FOCA. But to say so quite clearly, when both supporters and opponents are leaning in, listening closely for signs of commitment, came as a bit of a surprise.

13 responses to “Obama: Freedom of Choice Act “Not Highest Legislative Priority””

  1. Isn’t this what we signed up for? We know Obama’s values — and we also know what he has to say to keep holding together a center-left coalition that looks to dominate American politics for the foreseeable future. And that could be a great future for women and women’s health.

    Having said that, he’s blatantly contradictory in his answer.

    On one hand: “I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they — if they suggest — and I don’t want to create straw men here, but I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women’s freedom and that there’s no other considerations.”

    So it’s not just about women’s freedom; there is a moral component.

    On the other hand: “The reason I’m pro-choice is because I don’t think women take that — that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day. And I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a president of the United States, in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their clergy.”

    So it’s all about women’s freedom — physically and morally.

    Don’t get thrown off by “the clergy.” I know that probably rankles some. He’s clearly stating — more clearly than most major political figure and certainly any president I’ve heard — that it’s a women’s decision. Period.

    I’ll take that, rhetorical contradictions and all.

  2. Obama’s record has been excellent on reproductive rights? Yeah, he acts like a democrat and does the basics – better than George Bush, for sure. But excellent? This is not excellent. Dissing the importance of FOCA after he swore up and down during the election that he would give this immediate support, is not excellent. Having Tim Kaine – the Dem’s Pro-Life extraordinaire as the new head of the DNC is not excellent.

    In your opinions, is Obama more or less excellent than Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich or a number of other democrats would have been?

  3. Alison, thanks for your question. I’m not going to speculate on how other Democratic candidates — particularly those who didn’t run this year/didn’t stand a chance — would be doing right now, but I do think Obama’s record so far has been excellent, particularly on global reproductive health (to wit: overturning global gag rule, restoring funding for the United Nations Population Fund, and creating the post of ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues — and naming Melanne Verveer — to the position are significant changes).

    I think creating the White House Council on Women and Girls is nothing to sneeze at, and appointing Hillary Clinton secretary of state was a bold move. As much as I disagree with her on some policy issues, I’m confident of her commitment to women’s health, and she reaffirmed as much, speaking for the Obama administration, in April: http://is.gd/vLYq-

    I was disappointed about his remarks on FOCA, but again — it’s up to Democratic members of Congress to move this bill and that doesn’t seem to be their priority.

    Laura, those rhetorical contradictions are indeed frustrating. But like you, I’m OK with the bottom line. I can accept the pragmatic language, even though it makes my head hurt, if the policies are solid. So far so good, though we’ve got lots more to go — which is why we all need to stay on top of these things.

  4. Christine,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am indeed thrilled about the White House Council on Women and Girls. I have my doubts about Valerie Jarrett, since she has no background in regard to working or speaking on behalf of women and is Michelle’s cousin (perhaps an act of nepotism?). Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful creation!

    Alot of what Obama restored is great. But this is what I would put into the category of “to be expected” and “better than Bush”. Important, yes. But not bold. Nothing that most Dems wouldn’t think of doing. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. I’m not sure I’d categorize this as bold but something most of us would expect considering her popularity during the election and how hard Hillary worked for Obama during the campaign. A good decision yes. But bold? I’d say more of a pay off.

    In regard to areas that I feel Obama has not been excellent for women I’d just like to share this short list:

    1. His response to John Favreau’s “groping” incident. Sexual harassment toward a workplace colleague for sure. If this had happened at many of the corporations or gov. agencies that I worked at, Favreau would have been fired. Obama should have taken this incident seriously and he did not.

    2. Having Rick Warren at the inauguration. Rick Warren’s ministry encourages women who are victims of domestic violence to stay with their spouse. Ouch. His presence at the inauguration was a slap in the face toward those who value building a society where violence against women is taken seriously.

    3. Obama’s cabinet count. How does it compare to Bush’s gender ration? Bill Clinton’s? Is Obama’s ratio “excellent”?

    4. Tim Kaine. Out of all the wonderful choices out there, Obama has chosen staunchly pro-life Time Kaine to be the new head of the DNC? This is terrible for women.

    5. FOCA. His flip-flop IMO is very bad for women. Obama promised to make FOCA a priority during the campaign. He actually said it would be one of the first things that he would tackle! This flip-flop of his hurts women. Obama obviously has incredible influence over Congress. If he were to speak on behalf of FOCA that would be extremely powerful. Instead, politics as usual is taking place, at the expense of women’s bodies.

    It saddens me that so many Democratic women are willing to take crumbs from their party. We need the FOCA but here’s what we are not talking about. What will happen to women’s allegiance to the Democratic party once FOCA is passed? How will Democrat’s be able to manipulate women to vote for them? They need to keep the fear of Roe vs. Wade in order to secure votes. It’s the perfect carrot.

    And so I don’t think it’s fair to women to be so understanding toward Obama in regard to FOCA. Unless you don’t mind crumbs. We need to speak loudly. Get angry. FOCA now! You promised and we voted! FOCA now! Let’s end this constant worrying of Roe vs. Wade. FOCA!

  5. I agree that this is mighty disappointing. Let’s hope he makes up for it by picking a firmly pro-choice replacement for Justice Souter.

  6. I think President Obama’s comments on FOCA are tremendously refreshing – after decades of Abortion Wars and intransigence on both sides it looks like we might have a President who’se interested in a bit of Peace negotiation and action on the issue.

  7. Brendan,

    I am assuming that you are pro-life? Otherwise, it does not make sense for you to find his comments “refreshing.” Unless you find throwing the issue of choice under the bus refreshing. But I can certainly understand your perspective from a Pro-Life point of view if this is the case.

    For the pro-choicers out there…. If we don’t get seriously pissed about this we are NEVER going to get what we want. If that’s okay with you all….

  8. This thread is interesting…i’m curious as to what responses this may retain so i am simple posting this to get the email for follow up comments.

  9. Waffling, that is what Obama is great at. He will be non-committal both ways and if things go right-he was the instigator-wrong-he did everything in his power. Now for my viewpoint-has anyone heard of the FACT that cancer in women occur 6 times more often than those who have not had an abortion. Also, I wish adoption was an option more looked at (which would eliminate the cancer increase) without having to have lawyers cashing in on a required adoption infrastructure. I also believe it should be the right of a mature woman to make, but they should also be given the facts and all the options. But one thing troubling me with these laws that are introduced, they all usually require all doctors to perform these procedures, even if they do not believe in them.

  10. David, thank you for weighing in, but I’m sorry you presented so much misinformation.

    First, abortion does not lead to an increased rate of cancer. I’m going to direct you to two medical sites that show study after study has found no link between induced abortion and breast cancer:
    American Cancer Society
    World Health Organization

    And doctors are most certainly NOT required to perform abortion procedures. Indeed, there are so few abortion providers in the United States that 87 percent of U.S. counties had none as of 2000 (New England Journal of Medicine).

    This new fact sheet from the Guttmacher Institute shows, state by state, the policies in place that allow providers to opt out of performing abortions and offering contraceptive services:

    From Guttmacher: “Almost every state has a policy explicitly allowing some health care professionals or certain institutions to refuse to provide or participate in abortion, contraceptive services or sterilization services. Even in states without explicit refusal statutes, an individual health care professional’s actions may be legally protected by statutes prohibiting discrimination against employees, based on their religious objections. While some of the institutional policies are limited to private, or even religious, health care institutions, others apply to all institutions providing health care.”

  11. Instead of being guided by personal feelings and political agendas, let us ask what is right in God’s eyes. That is the most important question. God makes the decision for birth. He is perfect after all. Let us fall on His understanding, not our own. The conception of a human being is a miracle. Who are we to destroy such an amazing creation? Please protect those lives that cannot defend themselves.

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