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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Miscasting McAuliffe’s Abortion Stance

An ad from a conservative super PAC claims without evidence that “Terry McAuliffe supports abortion on demand at any time for any reason — paid for by Virginia taxpayers.” The McAuliffe campaign tells us that he “supports keeping existing Virginia laws on when abortions are legal.”

The ad from Virginia Principles Fund bases its claim on a non-denial by the McAuliffe campaign when his position was characterized that way by opponents. The McAuliffe campaign didn’t directly dispute the claim initially, but tells us that McAuliffe supports existing Virginia laws on abortion that prohibit third-trimester abortions except to protect the life or health of the mother.

As for the claim that McAuliffe wants Virginia taxpayers to pay for on-demand abortion, that’s thinly based on McAuliffe’s support for the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which includes language forbidding taxpayer dollars from being used to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

With polls showing McAuliffe performing well among women, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate has been attacking (and stretching the truth on) Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli’s opposition to abortion.  The ad from Virginia Principles Fund turns the tables and attacks McAuliffe’s support for abortion rights. It is part of a $300,000 TV ad campaign.

In the ad, the narrator states, “Terry McAuliffe supports abortion on demand at any time for any reason — paid for by Virginia taxpayers.” It’s a claim that abortion foes and the Cuccinelli campaign have been making for months, without direct denials from the McAuliffe campaign.

“Despite being asked by reporters on multiple occasions if he disputes the characterization of his position as supporting ‘abortion on demand at any time, for any reason, paid for by Virginia taxpayers,’ he and his campaign have declined to do so,” Sarah Huckabee, who heads Virginia Principles Fund, told us via email.

Huckabee, daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, pointed to a March 19 story in the Washington Post in which Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, claimed that McAuliffe “supports a platform of abortion on-demand at any time, for any reason, paid for by Virginia taxpayers.” The Post article noted that “McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin declined to say whether Dannenfelser had accurately represented McAuliffe’s position on abortion.”

Huckabee also cited a July 29 story in Politico, which included this claim from Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix: “Terry McAuliffe’s support for taxpayer funded abortions, abortion up to the moment of birth and abortion for sex selection is an extreme position by any and every estimate.” The article didn’t include any response from the McAuliffe campaign about that characterization of his position.

So is silence the same thing as a position statement? It is not.

We reached out to the McAuliffe campaign and asked whether the ad accurately reflected McAuliffe’s position.

“That’s a totally inaccurate attack,” McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin wrote to us in an email. “He [McAuliffe] supports keeping existing Virginia laws on when abortions are legal and trusts women to make their own health care decisions.”

Virginia law prohibits third-trimester abortions except to protect the life or health of the mother, according to a Sept. 1 review of state policies on late-term abortions by the Guttmacher Institute (see page 3).

We could not find that McAuliffe has made any public statements echoing Schwerin’s, and we asked if the McAuliffe campaign could provide any public statement, position paper or questionnaire in which McAuliffe signaled his support for keeping intact current Virginia laws on when abortions are legal.

Schwerin directed us to a Sept. 9 story in the Washington Post, which states, “McAuliffe campaign says he ‘supports keeping existing Virginia laws on when abortions are legal.’ The state currently prohibits third-trimester abortions except to protect the life of the mother.” That’s two weeks before the Virginia Principles Fund ad began airing.

We also found a Sept. 15 written position statement from the McAuliffe campaign submitted to the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., which states, “As governor, Terry will protect women’s access to all health care options available under Virginia law, including preventive care, contraception and safe and legal abortion.”

Given the statement by the McAuliffe campaign directly contradicting the ad’s claim, the onus is on Virginia Principles Fund to back up its assertion. And a non-denial from the McAuliffe campaign doesn’t cut it.

As for the claim that McAuliffe wants abortions “paid for by Virginia taxpayers,” according to backup material provided by Huckabee, that stems from McAuliffe’s support for implementing the Affordable Care Act in Virginia. The law includes specific language forbidding taxpayer dollars from being used to pay for abortions. But as we have written in the past, that is an issue that abortion foes vehemently contest.

FactCheck.org, Oct. 28, 2010: Strictly speaking, [the law] does not [use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortion], except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother’s life, the same government restrictions that have applied to Medicaid recipients, federal workers and the military. The controversy stems from how the law aims to guarantee those rules are followed when the government provides subsidies to purchase insurance.

The law says that those receiving subsidies to buy insurance through state-based exchanges must submit a separate payment to cover abortion services (if they choose a plan that covers abortions), and insurance providers must keep federal money separate from private payments to ensure the federal money does not go toward abortion coverage. President Obama also signed an executive order reaffirming the federal rules on only funding abortion in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life. Does that go too far or not far enough? That depends on one’s viewpoint, and we’ll let readers be the judge.

Huckabee passed along a story from Breitbart.com in which former Democratic congressman Bart Stupak, an abortion opponent who was pivotal in helping forge the compromise deal with Obama that led to the executive order, contended that Obama had violated the executive order when the Department of Health and Human Services later mandated that large employers provide insurance that covers certain types of contraception, including the so-called morning-after pill, or Plan B. The pill acts in a way that some consider the same as chemically induced abortions. However, it is not the same thing as the “abortion pill,” RU-486, the controversial medication that can induce abortion in women who are up to nine weeks pregnant.

As we explained when this issue arose during the Republican presidential primary: “The ‘morning-after pill’ can prevent pregnancy, but won’t affect established pregnancies, if taken within a few days of unprotected sex. It is essentially a high dose of birth control pills. It delays ovulation and can prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. It’s true that some abortion opponents say the pill, along other forms of birth control, is an abortifacient, which is a drug that induces abortion. But it is not known as ‘the abortion pill,’ which is a much more controversial topic.”

We could find no public statement in which McAuliffe expressed support for taxpayer-funded abortions. According to Huckabee, it’s more in what McAuliffe has not said.

“On his own campaign website, McAuliffe says, ‘I strongly believe that women should be able to make their own healthcare decisions without interference from Washington or Richmond.’ Nothing about restrictions for late-term abortions – simply no ‘interference,’ ” Huckabee said. “Nothing in his record or public statements suggests McAuliffe’s position is anything other than support for ‘abortion on demand at any time, for any reason, paid for by Virginia taxpayers.'”

But again, the non-denial of a claim made by political opponents isn’t the same thing as assent. Particularly not when McAuliffe’s campaign says he supports current Virginia law, which prohibits abortions after the third trimester.

— Robert Farley