An earnest commenter is trawling the blogs trying to find out just what Barack Obama meant by “mental distress,” as in “I don’t think that ‘mental distress’ qualifies as the health of the mother. I think it has to be a serious physical issue that arises in pregnancy….”

Well, earnest commenter, it is possible that Obama means “mental distress” to encompass some kind of qualm or concern short of mental illness. In which case Obama is only “restating existing law”; there is no legal late-term abortion on the grounds of “cold feet,” “the screaming heebie-geebies,” or whatever synonym for “hysterically irresponsible woman-feelings” you’d like to use.

But look again: that can’t be true, because the Obama quotation clearly says, “I think it has to be a serious physical issue….” Now, it is possible that Obama understands, say, paranoid schizophrenia, because it has a chemical basis, to be a “serious physical issue” rather than a mental illness.

But that would certainly be an unconventional use of the language.

So what can Obama mean? It seems he doesn’t mean anything, much, beyond saying, “I certainly don’t support abortions on frivolous grounds.”—i.e., “It is not just a matter of feeling blue.” (Wait, is that a slam on depressives?)

To be clear, I fully expect (for whatever my full expectations are worth) that Obama as president would appoint judges and justices who support a woman’s right to choose an abortion. I firmly believe this is dog-whistle language.

Of course, defenses of the form, “he doesn’t really mean it, he’s just signalling a constituency he’d like to court and later ignore,” when made on behalf of modern Republicans using terms like, say, “states’ rights,” don’t elicit my sympathy.