A controversy over political billboards in Ohio has caused more debate over abortion funding in this year’s health care legislation. Backers of the targeted pro-life Democrat say the ad violates state law against false statements, but the Republican-leaning pro-life group running the ad says the facts are on its side and deserve a hearing.
The Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) had intended to put up four billboards targeting Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus. “Shame on Steve Driehaus!” the proposed billboard read. “Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.”
In response, the candidate filed a criminal complaint with the elections commission, which blocked the campaign.
Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life of America, responded to a CNA inquiry about the case.
“I cannot comment on the current case except for the facts,” she wrote. “The Ohio Elections Commission ruled that there was probable cause to believe that the Susan B. Anthony List acted with reckless disregard for the truth in their campaign claim that Congressman Driehaus voted in favor of taxpayer funded abortion when he voted for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).”
She added that the SBA List has now asked a federal court to overturn the relevant Ohio law which prohibits “posting, publishing, circulating, distributing, or otherwise disseminating a false statement concerning a candidate.”
Day said it was “false” to claim that a vote for the health care legislation was a vote for taxpayer-funded abortion.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the SBA List, defended the ad.
“Every major pro-life organization takes the stand that they did vote for taxpayer funding of abortion,” she commented in a separate phone interview. “Our position was (Michigan Rep. Bart) Stupak’s and Driehaus’ position before they changed it.”
“For that debate not to be allowed to unroll on the district level should be offensive to anybody who wants to be involved in political conversation.”
In the controversy over the billboard, the pro-life blogger and 2002 Republican House candidate Jill Stanek had published e-mails from Day to the SBA List’s Emily Buchanan discussing strategy to encourage support for the Stupak Amendment before the passage of the health care bill.
Day confirmed she had written the e-mails, but challenged Stanek’s contention that they show she knew that the legislation without the Stupak Amendment restrictions allowed taxpayer funding of abortion.
“The e-mails don’t say that,” she wrote.
Asked to respond to the claim that previous support for the Stupak Amendment showed a belief that the health care legislation allowed abortion, Day answered:
“The fact that we wanted to make the bill stronger, does not logically imply that the bill allowed taxpayer funded abortions.”
She was also critical of backing Republicans to replace pro-life Democrats.
“The pro-life organizations that are working in concert with the Republican Party strategy to defeat all Democrats are seizing on the public's general lack of knowledge and uncertainty about the health care insurance reform bill,” she commented. “Targeting strong pro-life advocates who are willing to stand up to their own leadership to protect the sanctity of life is mistake. The pro-life movement is now moving toward fully embracing a one-party strategy.”
The SBA List is financially backing one Democratic congressman, Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who voted against the health care bill in part because of concerns about its restrictions on abortion funding. It has targeted 42 Democratic House candidates for defeat.
Dannenfelser told CNA that the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio had joined the fight against the law which had barred the billboards, arguing that the law is “vague,” missing important provisions, and in violation of the First Amendment.
Opponents of the law are aiming for a legal victory which will have a “ripple effect” in districts where the same argument is continuing.
“It’s one of those things where a backroom deal could completely wipe out an organization,” she commented. In her view, the charges against the SBA List could lead to a costly and “highly invasive” legal discovery process in which every paper an organization has generated must be produced, including private strategy papers.
Don Clemmer, assistant director of media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), responded to a CNA inquiry about the conference's view of abortion funding in the health care bill, which Dannenfelser had cited in support.
He referred to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo’s Aug. 20 letter to U.S. Representatives encouraging legislation to make permanent federal restrictions on abortion funding. There, the cardinal wrote that the PPACA funds health plans that cover abortions and force citizens enrolled in many plans to fund others’ abortions through their health premiums.
Other possible abortion funding in the bill is dependent upon a decision by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, while still more funds could go to abortions in Community Health Centers if court precedent is upheld.