A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Abortion Distortions 2014

Democratic Ads That Misrepresent GOP Positions


In the 2014 fight for control of Congress, Democrats are sometimes using a tactic they’ve used before: Falsifying or exaggerating the positions their Republican opponents have taken on abortion.

The real contrast between the parties on this polarizing issue is stark enough: Democrats tend to favor a legal right to abortion, and Republicans tend to oppose it. But in a number of TV ads we’ve seen running in September, the divide is made to seem wider than it really is.

  • An ad in Virginia falsely accuses GOP House candidate Barbara Comstock of seeking to make abortions illegal “even in cases of rape or incest.” She isn’t.
  • Another Virginia ad says GOP Rep. Scott Rigell favors limiting funds for abortions “only to victims of forcible rape.” Not true. He also supports federally funded abortions in cases of incest or life-threatening pregnancies, and has dropped the “forcible” qualifier in cases of rape.
  • In New Hampshire, a Democratic ad says GOP House candidate Marilinda Garcia “voted to make abortions illegal, even in cases of rape or incest.” But what she voted for was a state bill that applied only to cases in which a “partially delivered living fetus” is killed.
  • In Alaska, an ad attacking GOP Senate candidate Dan Sullivan says he would “make abortion a crime even if a woman’s health is threatened.” Actually, Sullivan has said he’d allow abortions to save a mother’s life, and has been silent on an exemption for lesser health threats.
  • In Colorado, an ad claims GOP Senate candidate Cory Gardner is co-sponsoring a bill that “makes all abortions illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.” But that vague measure would declare a belief by Congress that life begins at conception and that a fetus enjoys Constitutional protection. Its exact legal effect, if any, would be decided by the courts.


In 2012, the Obama campaign repeatedly made the false claim that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was opposed to allowing abortions for pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest. That wasn’t true, as we pointed out — again and again. Now, we are seeing the same tactic being used by Democrats in several 2014 House and Senate elections.

In race after race, Democratic ads are misrepresenting, distorting and exaggerating their Republican opponents’ position on abortion to make them seem more strict (and therefore less popular) than they really are.

A False Claim About ‘Rape and Incest’

This ad by John Foust, the Democratic nominee for the House in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, claims that Republican nominee Barbara Comstock “wants to make abortion illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.” But Comstock says the opposite: “I support a rape/incest/life of the mother exception on abortion,” she said in a statement relayed to us by her campaign.

And that’s not the first time Comstock has taken that position. She was asked specifically about where she stood on “abortion in cases of rape or incest” while seeking the endorsement of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund in July. The fund normally doesn’t make its questionnaires public, but in this case the group sent a letter giving the full text of Comstock’s response. “I do support a life of the mother and rape and incest exception for abortion,” the SBA quoted Comstock as stating.

The Foust website provides no support for the ad’s claim. When we pressed for an explanation, a Foust aide told us the claim was based on Comstock’s 2012 vote in favor of a bill that some referred to as a “personhood” measure in the Virginia House of Delegates, where she is a member.

That bill, however, would not have banned any abortions, and did not even mention rape or incest. It would have declared that under Virginia law, “The life of each human being begins at conception” and that unborn children would have “all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons” in the state. But neither side claimed at the time that the bill would ban abortions in Virginia.

For one thing, the bill stated explicitly that the rights it would have granted to unborn children would be subject to “the Constitution of the United States and decisional interpretations thereof by the United States Supreme Court,” which has for more than 40 years held that states cannot outlaw abortion during the first months of a woman’s pregnancy. The Supreme Court first held that in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and reaffirmed that finding in the landmark 1992 case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Abortion foes who supported the bill expected far less of it than criminalizing abortions, but said it might have provided grounds for wrongful death lawsuits in some cases. “Had HB 1 been enacted, one practical effect would have been to create a wrongful death cause of action for the death of an unborn child in certain situations (for example, in instances of domestic violence),” said the Virginia Catholic Conference in a statement lamenting the bill’s failure. The bill passed the state House but later died in the state Senate.

Pro-abortion-rights groups didn’t go so far as to claim it would outlaw abortion, either. The worst that NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia said about it is that the “dangerous” measure would “lay the legal groundwork” to ban all abortions. But even if such “groundwork” was laid, Comstock states explicitly that she doesn’t favor banning abortion for victims of rape or incest as the Foust ad claims, and Foust has yet to produce any evidence that she does.

An Incorrect Claim About ‘Forcible Rape’

This ad says Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia “supports limiting funds for abortions to only victims of forcible rape.” That’s not correct. Under the bill the ad refers to, public funds could also continue to be used for abortions for victims of incest, and to save the life of the mother.

The ad from Rigell’s opponent, Democrat Suzanne Patrick, cites his co-sponsorship of H.R. 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” in 2011. That bill, as explained in the Washington Post story also cited by the ad, sought to make permanent “several provisions that have been law for years but require annual renewal by Congress,” including the Hyde Amendment that prevents federally funded health care programs such as Medicaid from covering abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger. It was a top priority of the Republican leadership following the 2010 election in which they regained a majority in the House. Rigell was one of 227 co-sponsors.

The bill, as it was introduced, would have narrowed the exemption for rape to “forcible” rape, which under the FBI’s definition includes rape using force or the threat of force, but does not include “statutory” rape, which is sex with a person who is legally too young to give consent, or physically or mentally incapacitated. So, the ad would have been accurate had it said Rigell favored “cutting off federal abortion funds for victims of statutory rape.”

But even that was a fleeting position, soon reversed. The word “forcible” was dropped from the bill in committee, and wasn’t included in the version of the bill that reached the House floor and was passed, 251 to 175, on May 4, 2011, with Rigell among those voting in favor. It later died in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority.

Another ‘Rape and Incest’ Distortion

This ad claims that Marilinda Garcia, the Republican candidate in New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District, “voted to make abortions illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.” That’s not true, except for abortions in which a “partially delivered living fetus” is killed.

The ad is sponsored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It cites a vote Garcia cast June 27, 2012 on a “partial-birth abortion” bill in the state House of Representatives. The vote was to override the governor’s veto, and Garcia was not alone. Two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate voted to override, and the bill became law effective Jan. 1, 2013.

It’s true that the “partial-birth” abortion ban allows an exception only for the life of the mother — not for rape or incest. But it doesn’t affect the law applying to the far more common forms of abortion.

Misleading on Abortions for ‘Health’ Reasons 

This ad from a liberal super PAC called “Put Alaska First” claims that Dan Sullivan, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Alaska, “would make abortion a crime even if a woman’s health is threatened.” That’s misleading. Sullivan has said he’d allow abortion to save the life of the mother, and in cases of rape or incest.

The ad cites a questionnaire signed by Sullivan. Alaska Family Action, an anti-abortion group, asked which of six statements “most closely reflects” his view. Sullivan checked off a statement saying “abortion should be illegal except when necessary to save the life of the mother, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.”

Sullivan Questionnaire

None of the choices included an exemption for non-life-threatening “health” reasons, and Sullivan wasn’t asked about such an exemption later at an Alaska Family Action forum where he appeared along with two other candidates seeking the Republican nomination. Neither of the other GOP candidates favored exemptions for rape or incest. Sullivan later defeated both of them in the Republican primary.

It’s easy to speculate that Sullivan might oppose such a “health” exemption in cases where a mother’s life was not at risk. During the debate, he defended allowing abortions in cases of rape or incest “because they’re so, such horrendous situations.” But the ad is wrong to pass off such speculation as fact, and could well lead some viewers to think — incorrectly — that he wouldn’t allow abortion in the case of a life-threatening health situation.

Debatable Claims About ‘Life at Conception’ Bill

This ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee claims GOP Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado co-sponsored a bill that “makes all abortions illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.” That’s a debatable opinion, not a fact. The anti-abortion measure makes no mention of rape or incest, and it’s far from clear what its effect would be.

The ad refers to H.R. 1091, the so-called “Life at Conception Act,” which was introduced March 12, 2013. Gardner signed on as a co-sponsor on July 23, 2013. All but one of the 132 co-sponsors are Republicans. A separate and almost identically worded Senate version of the “Life at Conception Act” currently has 21 co-sponsors, all Republicans, led by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The bills say, “Congress hereby declares that the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being,” and they define “human being” as “each and every member of the species homo sapiens at all stages of life, including the moment of fertilization.” It is thus similar to “personhood” bills and ballot initiatives in Colorado and a handful of other states. So far, none has succeeded.

Proponents of the “Life at Conception Act” make sweeping claims for it. “This bill would extend the Constitutional protection of life to the unborn from the time of conception,” according to Paul. The National Pro-Life Alliance argues that the bill would “dismantle” the Roe v. Wade decision. That’s because the high court’s majority said specifically in Roe v. Wade that if a fetus can be established to be a “person” under the Constitution, “the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.”

But just because Congress “declares” something doesn’t mean that the Supreme Court is obliged to agree. As the Supreme Court famously held in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” So, there’s uncertainty about the legal impact of the “Life at Conception” bill.

But even assuming that the sponsors’ sweeping claims turn out to be accurate, that still falls short of necessarily making “all” abortions illegal “even in cases of rape or incest,” as the ad claims. Paul, for one, has refused to make that claim for his bill. He was asked on CNN whether he “would have no exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother.” And he said, “What I would say is that there are thousands of exceptions. I’m a physician and every individual case is going to be different.” A spokesman for Paul later tried to clarify that, telling an anti-abortion news website that Paul was trying to say that “a singular exception to save the life of the mother would likely cover thousands of individual cases.”

So, we find that the ad goes too far in claiming Gardner’s bill would “make all abortions illegal,” without exception.

(The ad also claims that Gardner’s bill would “make most common forms of birth control illegal.” The bill could lead to that, though it would, again, take court cases to determine the impact. As we reported in our Aug. 15 article, “A Fight Over Birth Control in Colorado,” Gardner himself says he has changed his mind and no longer supports the Colorado “personhood” initiative, precisely because it could threaten the legality of common forms of birth control. But the federal bill he still supports contains the same language. And the nonpartisan American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that defining a fertilized egg as a person with legal rights “would have wide-reaching harmful implications … on women’s access to contraception.”)

When Claims are No Longer True


This TV spot from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee uses the handwritten responses of GOP Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado in 2008 to make its case that what it says is “undeniable.” But that was six years ago and the ad fails to note that Coffman has changed his position since then.

The ad says, “Does Coffman want to outlaw a woman’s right to choose? Yes. Even in cases of incest and rape? Yes, and yes.” And that’s true. Coffman answered “yes” to each question in a questionnaire from Colorado Right to Life when he first ran for his seat in the 2008 election, which he won. And though the questions were phrased differently than the ad, they carry the same meaning.


Coffman Question 2

Question 2 asked, “Do you agree that abortion is always wrong, even when the baby’s father is a criminal (a rapist)? Coffman penned in “yes.”

Coffman Question 7

Question 7 asked, “Will you refuse to support any legislation that would allow abortions, even if it is a ‘pro-life’ bill? (i.e., legislation that says ‘Abortion shall be prohibited unless…’)?”  And Coffman again wrote in, “yes.”

Even though the word “incest” isn’t mentioned, the meaning is clear: Coffman staked out a position that abortion is “always wrong” and should be illegal without exception.

That’s not a popular position. In the most recent Gallup Poll, for example, only 21 percent agreed that abortion should be illegal “in all circumstances,” while 50 percent said it should be “legal under certain circumstances” and 28 percent favored legal abortions “under any circumstances.”

The political unpopularity of banning abortion without exception explains why Democrats are eager to publicize Coffman’s position. Unfortunately, it also explains — but doesn’t excuse — their habit of falsely accusing opponents of holding such a position when they really don’t or, in Coffman’s case, no longer do.

Coffman issued a statement in June 2013 saying, “I strongly support the exceptions for rape, incest, and protecting the life of the mother.” That was a change from his position in 2012, when the Denver Post reported that he supported an exception only for the life of the mother. The paper reported the change in Coffman’s position in a story on April 16, but then pulled the article from its website because the politics editor deemed the story not “new news,” citing the June 2013 statement.

The DCCC ad also says that Coffman supported a state ballot measure in 2008 on “personhood,” which is accurate. But it fails to mention that Coffman took no position on the state initiative in 2012, when an attempt to place it on the ballot failed, or that Coffman now says he is opposed to it. In a story earlier this month on a candidate debate, the Post wrote: “Coffman said he backed away from supporting personhood a couple years ago because such measures are too broad, with effects that made him uncomfortable.” The paper also recently quoted Coffman as saying, “I don’t support personhood.”

Correction, Sept. 26: This story has been updated to reflect that Coffman has changed his position on abortion exceptions and the state “personhood” initiative. We apologize for the oversight.

— by Brooks Jackson


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