Monday, October 6, 2014

Just Answer The Question, Please.

Last week the Missoulian began to print the responses of candidates to its legislative questionnaire – you know, those questions that it sends out every other year before the November elections, asking would-be solons how they stand on the issues. I (and I hope most voters) read the candidates’ answers pretty carefully. After all, how else are we going to get beyond the sound bites, pretty pictures, TV attack ads and robocalls that constitute political communication these days?

Of course, if candidates really want us to know what they think, they’ve got to answer frankly and honestly the questions they were actually asked. But unfortunately, when it comes to at least some questions, all the Republican candidates whose answers have been printed so far have given us anything but frankness and honesty.

Here are the questions.

 Do you support additional restrictions on abortion in Montana? Should the Legislature continue to approve federal money to family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood?

And here are the answers.

Rep. Nancy Ballance: I do not support any federal or state funding of abortions.

Dick Haines
:  I cannot support abortions except to save the life of the mother or a mother and child.

Lyn Hellegaard: In 2012, Planned Parenthood revealed a total income of $1.14 billion. Taxpayers shelled out $542 million through federal and state grants and contracts (or 45 percent of its entire income). At the same time, Planned Parenthood cut back non-abortion related programs like adoption, breast cancer screenings and infertility treatment, and demanded that all its affiliate centers offer surgical abortion. Abortions should be privately funded. For the sake of argument, let’s assume I believe that life begins at conception. If that is what I believe, how can I be anything but pro-life.

Rep. Jerry O’Neil: Being pro-life, I would like to see less abortions performed in Montana, but am not willing to outlaw birth control pills in order to reach that result.

To be clear about this, the questions the Missoulian is asking here are not hypotheticals. In every legislative session I have served in, conservative Republican anti-choice legislators have introduced bills to interfere with access to abortion. In at least the last two sessions, they have also attempted to prevent the state from receiving and spending the Federal Title X money which goes to support family planning clinics. And when that effort failed, the Ravalli County commissioners, down in Rep. Ballance’s country, turned down the money and shut their county clinic, despite the fact that not one cent of Title X money pays for abortions; it’s all spent on family planning and women’s health programs. 

So what we have here are real questions about important issues that affect a lot of Montanans. We deserve  honest and complete answers. But what we get are answers that range from the totally irrelevant through the deliberately deceptive and on to the hopelessly absurd.

Not one of these folks actually tells us if they would “support additional restrictions on abortion.” Haines gets the closest, I guess, by saying that he only supports abortions to “save the life of the mother or a mother and child.” I leave to your imagination what he can possibly mean by an abortion to save the life of a child.* Whether he would actually support legislation to restrict abortion to these cases he doesn’t say, and whether or not he is aware of the fact that such legislation would fly in the face of Roe v. Wade is unclear.

O’Neil tells us that he would like to see fewer abortions performed in Montana, but would be unwilling to “outlaw birth control pills . . . to reach that result.” Well, that’s a relief! Not that anybody is proposing anything that crazy, but how O’Neil thinks that outlawing birth control pills could lead to anything other than more unplanned pregnancies and more abortions is an utter mystery.

Not one of these candidates tells us if the Legislature should “continue to approve federal money to family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood.” Ballance and Hellegaard both say that they oppose public funding of abortions, which is not the question at issue when it comes to spending Title X funds. Hellegaard hints at her hostility to Planned Parenthood (okay, okay, it’s more than a hint) by citing how much revenue and public funding it receives, but without telling us that the numbers refer to Planned Parenthood nationwide nor explaining what, if anything, that money has to do with supporting family planning clinics in Montana. And in an absurd attempt at craftiness, Hellegaard tells us that if, “for the sake of the argument,” she believes that life begins at conception, she has to be pro-life. Myself, I’d rather know that she really is pro-life than to have to contemplate this sophistry.

I suppose we need to understand what a tough position these questions put conservative Republican candidates in. After all, winning elections means having to hold your base and at the same time capturing voters in the center, and in this case, never the twain shall meet. The conservative Republican base is staunchly anti-abortion and just queasy enough about sex to think that we shouldn’t help anyone engage in it by providing them with birth control.  Folks in the middle, on the other hand, don’t want to further restrict abortion access, and think that if you don’t like abortion, the last thing in the world you should do is defund the family planning that obviates the need for it.

What is a poor Republican candidate to do in this situation?

Well, as we see here, the answer is duck and cover.**

* Haines’ responses to the Missoulian, which you can find here, are worth an additional look. Among other things, he says, with regard to the referendum to end election day registration,I support the referendum. I saw too many bus loads of students that had had a hamburger and beer arriving to vote at the last minute. I admit I could be wrong, but I suspect many in the ‘last minute’ crowd had voted somewhere else as well.” Funny how those duplicate registrations didn’t pop up all over the place in the Missoula County Elections Office.

** In the cases of Ballance and O’Neil, of course, ducking is a bit of a problem, because they have actual voting records. So just so you know: Both earned a score of zero from NARAL Pro-Choice Montana (you can find NARAL’s 2013 voting score card here). O’Neil didn’t get a chance to vote on Title X in 2013, but as a member of the Appropriations Committee, Ballance voted against an attempt by Rep. Kim Dudik to amend HB2, the general appropriations bill, to include Title X funding.  Both voted for HB2 when it left the House, but when the Senate added Title X back in and returned the bill to the House, they voted against it (although that could be because they objected to some other Senate amendment).