In Utah’s only close congressional contest, Republican Rep. Mia Love has used tried-and-true conservative attacks on her Democratic opponent, Ben McAdams: attempting to tie him to unpopular House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and paint him as a champion of unrestricted abortion rights.
McAdams dispatched with the first charge quickly — pledging that if elected he wouldn’t vote for Pelosi for speaker (though Love warned a Democratic majority would inevitably restore Pelosi to the top spot).
Dealing with the second line of attack is somewhat more complicated — as is the abortion issue itself.
It began at the Salt Lake County Republican Convention in April, when Love charged that McAdams was in the race to push “unrestricted abortion and use your money to pay for it.”
Love then relayed a story about one of her daughters saying that she is a conservative “because if you’re a country that decides that you’re going to kill our babies, you are pretty much good for nothing.”
McAdams responded quickly, tweeting that his opponent’s characterizations of him were untrue and out of line.
“As an active Mormon, I find this attack offensive & not the way we do things in Utah. Typical mudslinging from a typical Washington insider. If she spent time listening to our issues, she could talk about that. We deserve better than partisan rhetoric and personal attacks.”
More recently, Love sent out a franked flyer to constituents, touting her “pro-life values” coupled with “commonsense solutions.”
“Mia will always fight to protect life. Her pro-life principles and votes in Congress are non-negotiable.”
There was no mention of her election opponent, which would be a violation of rules for the taxpayer-funded mailers.
At the same time, she pointed to her introduction of legislation that would allow women to obtain birth control over the counter. “It’s common sense to empower women to avoid unwanted pregnancies instead of leaving them to choose an abortion after a pregnancy occurs.”
Love says her focus on abortion in recent months isn’t just a campaign tactic — it’s who she is.
“There is not one person that [doesn’t] know that one of the most important things I’ve ever done out there [in Congress] is I have been unapologetically pro-life. … I’ve gone out, I’ve been one of the main spokespersons here in Congress on the pro-life issue.
“And my stance has always been the same,” Love said. “No abortions; to protect life at all stages of development, except in cases of rape, incest or life of a mother [threatened].”
McAdams said that is precisely his position, too (as well as that of the Mormon church, of which both are members).
“I’d say, like many Utahns, I have deeply held beliefs about the sanctity of life and what we can do to promote the sanctity of life,” the Salt Lake County mayor said in an interview.
“You know, my position hasn’t changed,” McAdams said. “I think abortion is far too common in America, and we should be taking steps to reduce abortion[s]. A lot of that is through education and greater access to contraception, but I think there are a lot of steps that I would support to reduce the number of abortions.”
McAdams, in an earlier interview with Salt Lake Tribune contributing columnist Holly Richardson, said, "Ultimately, decisions about terminating a pregnancy should be made by a woman in consultation with her physician, family members and faith counselors she trusts.”
Love takes issue with McAdams' claims of consistency.
Her campaign points to McAdams’ voting record from 2009-2012 as a state senator, which aides have combed through.
“He opposed a 72-hour waiting period,” Love said, referring to McAdams’ vote on HB461, a 2012 bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert requiring women seeking an abortion in the state to wait at least 72 business hours between an information visit and undergoing the procedure.
McAdams was one of six senators, all Democrats, who voted against the bill during its final Senate hearing. “It was just 72 hours,” Love said. “That’s it, and he voted against it.”
One study in the aftermath of the law raises questions about Its effectiveness in reducing abortions.
In April 2016, medical researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, found that only an estimated 2 percent of women who were sure of their decision before attending an information session changed their minds during the state-mandated waiting period. “Overall, Utah’s 72-hour waiting period and two-visit requirement did not prevent women who had required information visits … from proceeding to having abortions,” the researchers wrote. “But the legally required delays did burden women with extra financial costs and logistical hassles and caused them to dwell on decisions they had already made.”
Love further noted McAdams' 2011 vote on HB353, a bill recognizing the right of a health care provider to refuse to participate in an abortion. “So his votes are in complete contrast to what he is saying,” said Love. “So he is going to have to explain that. I mean, I certainly would if it were me, and, you know, this is one of those things that voters have a right to know where you’re going to be.”
The Tribune, in its own review, found that there were at least seven bills related to restricting access to abortion that McAdams voted against as a state senator. For example, he was among seven senators to vote against HB200 in 2010, an eventually passed bill requiring doctors to describe ultrasound images to a woman before she receives an abortion. The next year, McAdams opposed HB171, a law mandating that the Utah Department of Health randomly inspect abortion clinics in the state twice a year.
But McAdams said many of his votes were due to what he considered flaws in the way the legislation was written, not evidence of a pro-abortion-rights stance. He brought up HB12, a controversial 2010 bill that would have imposed criminal penalties on women who obtained illegal abortions and noted that the bill was vetoed by Herbert.
“Those particular bills were problematic," McAdams said. “All of the bills were poorly drafted." They had "problems that I would have liked to see addressed. And they weren’t addressed.”
McAdams feared the bill criminalizing illegal abortions “would have imposed a criminal penalty on a woman who had an accident that resulted in a miscarriage, like a fall skiing or on a four-wheeler,” the former state senator said. “And, you know, a mother in those circumstances needs support and counseling from her loved ones after an accident, and to criminalize a tragedy in the life of a mother was the wrong thing to do. And that’s why I opposed it, and that’s why the governor vetoed it.”
McAdams still voted against an amended version of the bill, HB462, that changed the original wording to exclude charges against women whose “reckless” actions, such as slipping on ice or driving without a seat belt, had led to the termination of a pregnancy, The Tribune reported in 2010. McAdams told AlterNet, a national progressive news publication, he thought the revised bill — which was signed by Herbert — would “open up a Pandora’s box” of unintended legal consequences.
Despite Love’s skepticism, McAdams insists that he holds, and always has held, an anti-abortion view.
McAdams said he views Love’s criticisms of his abortion voting record as political attacks aimed at distracting from the pressing issues at stake in November’s election.
“I assume she has no record to run on, so she’s distorting my position and my record to distract from her lack of accomplishments,” McAdams said. “I don’t think she has much to campaign on, so she has has to go on the attack and try to distort my record.”
Love maintains that she just wants the mayor to clarify his position about an issue she is passionate about.
“I’m a mom,” she said. “I’ve gone through miscarriages, which have been horrible for me and for my family. And there are so many people that are looking for beautiful children to be able to bring into their homes and into this world, and I think that we lose our potential and we have less” when abortion is legal.
A Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in June showed Love with a 6 percentage point lead over McAdams, 45 percent to 39 percent, with a margin of error of 5 points, plus or minus. The Tribune reported earlier this month that both candidates have about $1.2 million in campaign funds.
UtahPolicy reported in June that a poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates found that 49 percent of 4th District voters believe abortion should be “illegal in most cases,” while a little over a quarter say “legal in most cases.” Twelve percent believe it should be “legal in all cases” and 8 percent say “illegal in all cases.”
Utah has one of the lowest abortion rates in the country, and pregnancy termination rates both statewide and nationally have been declining for decades and are at historic lows.