Utah Democrat’s Abortion Stance Sparks Questions Ahead of Midterms

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Analysis Abortion

Utah Democrat’s Abortion Stance Sparks Questions Ahead of Midterms

Nicole Knight

Ben McAdams' voting record as a state senator showed he opposed at least seven bills intended to restrict access to abortion care, including legislation in 2012 imposing a 72-hour waiting period, according to a Salt Lake Tribune tally.

The Republican incumbent in Utah’s 4th U.S. Congressional District is reading from a time-worn political playbook to bash her Democratic challenger over his past opposition to abortion restrictions.

Republican Rep. Mia Love charged at the Salt Lake County Republican Convention in April that Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democrat running for Congress, would back “unrestricted abortion and use your money to pay for it,” as the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Love is defending her seat in a suburban Salt Lake district that leans Republican, but where Hillary Clinton captured 32 percent of the vote in 2016. The race has gained national attention, landing on the list of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s seats it’s targeting to flip from red to blue. The recognition gives McAdams ready access to national fundraising.

McAdams, a seventh-generation Utahn, is viewed as a strong challenger in a too-close-to-call race. But Love’s charges have put him on offense over his record opposing state-level abortion restrictions. A recent Salt Lake Tribune article played up the fight, with the headline: “Utah Democrat insists he’s just as anti-abortion as his conservative opponent.”

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Reproductive rights activists suggest McAdams’ stance is more accurately described as personal versus political: McAdams personally opposes abortion on religious grounds, but has reliably cast votes against abortion restrictions. “Within ‘pro-choice,’ there can be a personal conviction against abortion,” said Pamela Merritt, a reproductive justice activist in St. Louis, in an interview with Rewire.News about McAdams’ record.

Close to 70 percent of Utahns are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS); seven in ten adherents say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. A Mormon, McAdams recently told the Tribune he has “deeply held beliefs about the sanctity of life.” Like most Mormons, he agrees with LDS teachings on abortion that oppose it except in cases of rape, incest, and life endangerment.

But in an earlier interview in April, McAdams also said abortion was a personal decision. “Ultimately, decisions about terminating a pregnancy should [be] made by a woman in consultation with her physician, family members and faith counselors she trusts,” he said.

McAdams’ campaign office did not respond to Rewire.News‘ request for comment.

McAdams’ voting record as a state senator showed he opposed at least seven bills intended to restrict access to abortion care, including legislation in 2012 imposing a 72-hour waiting period, according to the Tribune’s tally.

“I don’t think someone who voted against a 72-hour waiting period in Utah is anti-choice,” Merritt observed. “He is trying to thread a very difficult needle to say that he personally opposes abortion and that his votes echo the merits of each individual bill.”

She continued,“Both of them are doing some interesting dancing, but the reason I think he’s trying to thread the needle is because his district isn’t as anti-abortion as [Love] is.”

In the 4th Congressional District, support for abortion restrictions is less solid than in the state as a whole. About half of district voters believe abortion should be “illegal in most cases,” with 40 percent saying it should be legal in most or all cases, according to a recent UtahPolicy.com survey of likely voters.

Staunchly anti-choice, Love sat on Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-TN) so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives which pursued false claims by the anti-abortion group run by David Daleiden that abortion providers had illegally profited off of fetal tissue sales. Love and her Republican colleagues also sought to ban abortion nationwide after 20 weeks, defund Planned Parenthood, and create an office within the Department of Justice to enforce the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, as Rewire.News reported previously.

Meanwhile, McAdams voted against bills to mandate twice-yearly inspections of abortion clinics and require doctors to describe ultrasound images to patients. He also opposed a religious refusal law, which acknowledged the right of health-care providers to refuse to participate in an abortion, a review by the Salt Lake Tribune found.

In explaining his opposition to a bill to criminalize illegal abortions, McAdams said he feared the legislation would’ve jailed pregnant people for accidents that produce a miscarriage, or for a miscarriage itself. “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.”