What voters are being told is at stake for abortion and reproductive rights in the U.S. presidential race depends upon where they live.
Republican Mitt Romney’s only television ad on those issues airs in population centers of closely contested states including Virginia, Florida and Ohio. It features a woman at her home computer assuring viewers that the former Massachusetts governor “doesn’t oppose contraception at all,” and “thinks abortions should be an option” in some cases.
The ad’s emphasis differs from Romney’s message as he sought his party’s nomination. During that phase of the campaign, he stressed his opposition to most abortions and bashed President Barack Obama’s health-care law for requiring religious groups to include contraception coverage as part of their medical insurance for employees.
That starker difference between the two candidates is highlighted by a Romney ally and anti-abortion advocacy group, the Susan B. Anthony List. Those commercials play in different regions of Virginia, Florida and Ohio, as well as in some other states.
Obama is “an abortion radical,” the group says in ads that note his health-care measure increases money for community groups that administer abortions. As part of the attack on Obama and his support for abortion rights, the ads feature a woman who says she is the survivor of a failed abortion and a nurse who says she saved aborted babies born alive.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List and a member of the Catholics for Romney coalition, said she and fellow anti-abortion activists are “disappointed” Romney hasn’t underscored “major differences” with Obama.
“That’s why we’re working so hard to make sure people know Obama’s views,” she said.
Romney has sought in his general election campaign to diminish the majority support polls show Obama has among women voters. His current ad on abortion and contraception has aired 714 times, mostly in Northern Virginia, at an estimated cost of $715,000, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, a New York-based political ad tracker. The 30-second spot has also appeared in cities in some of the other battleground states, including Denver, Miami, Cleveland and Raleigh, North Carolina.
The ads by the Susan B. Anthony List and its associated Women Speak Out! super-political action committee have appeared most often in Dayton, Ohio; Norfolk, Virginia, and Jacksonville, Florida, as well Kansas City, Missouri. The two groups have spent an estimated $847,210 to air the commercials 424 times.
Romney’s views on abortion and reproductive rights, while not displacing the economy and jobs as the campaign’s top issues, have been spotlighted at times due in part to how his positions have evolved.
Romney, 65, supported abortion rights in his failed 1994 campaign for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, saying during that campaign that he believed “abortion should be safe and legal in this country.”
By the time he unsuccessfully sought his party’s 2008 presidential nomination, he had changed positions, opposing abortion rights except in cases of rape, incest and when the health of the mother is at risk.
In this year’s campaign, he has said he would support legislative efforts to remove federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a women’s health group that provides abortion services. He also has said that, for any Supreme Court vacancies, he would nominate candidates who favor overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision establishing a woman’s right to have an abortion.
He raised some concerns among anti-abortion activists when he told the editorial board of the Des Moines Register in Iowa on Oct. 9 that there were no specific pieces of abortion legislation he would pursue as president. A day later, he reiterated his pledge to be “a pro-life president.”
Within a week of the Des Moines interview, Romney began running the ad in which the woman narrator says, referring to attacks on him by Democrats, “You know, those ads saying Mitt Romney would ban all abortions and contraception seemed a bit extreme.”
As the narrator is shown at a computer searching the phrase “Mitt Romney on abortion,” she says, “Turns out, Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all. In fact, he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life.”
Officials with anti-abortion groups including the Susan B. Anthony List, the Catholic Association, Americans United for Life and American Values said they view the ad as consistent with Romney’s position and understand why he made it, though they don’t support the abortion exceptions.
“His position was mischaracterized, and he had to correct that falsehood,” Dannenfelser said. “I get why he had to do that.”
The anti-abortion groups focus on what they call Obama’s “extreme” position of opposing restrictions on abortion and allowing taxpayer money to pay for abortion service providers.
“Romney has chosen to focus on jobs and the economy, while Obama, in an attempt to get a certain voting bloc, brings up abortion again and again,” said Maureen Ferguson, a senior policy adviser at the Catholic Association.
‘Designed to Deceive’
Planned Parenthood, which has spent an estimated $2.8 million on 3,159 presidential ads in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Colorado, called the current Romney spot “designed to deceive.”
“The more women learn about Mitt Romney’s position, the less likely they are to support him, and that’s why he’s trying so hard to muddy the waters in the final days of this campaign,” Dawn Laguens, executive vice president for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in an e-mailed statement.
Planned Parenthood and the Obama campaign point to a Romney statement at a 2008 Republican primary debate that he would be “delighted” to sign a federal ban on abortion.
An Obama campaign ad recycles that clip -- edited to exclude Romney going on to say of the federal ban: “That’s not where we are. That’s not where America is today.” In the debate, he advocated returning decisions on abortion rights to the states.
In the Susan B. Anthony List ad featuring the abortion survivor, the woman tells her story and says Obama, 51, as an Illinois state senator voted to deny rights to babies born alive after failed abortions.
“Is this the kind of leadership that will move us forward -- that will discard the weakest among us?” she asks. “How will you answer?”