By Neil Vigdor
In a state where abortion, access to birth control and other family planning issues haven’t always moved the political dial, the so-called “war on women” has a new theater: Connecticut’s U.S. Senate race.
Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon, opponents in what pollsters have pegged a dead heat that could determine the balance of power in the Senate, have invested considerable energy trying to convince women voters that their social views are in the mainstream for this moderate if not left-of-center state.
“Linda McMahon would be a disastrous senator for women who care about protecting their rights. In fact, she’s worse this year than she was two years ago on women’s issues,” Murphy, in his third term in the House, said in a recent interview.
McMahon, who lost the women’s vote 60 percent to 40 percent when she ran for Senate two years ago and identifies herself as “pro-choice” like Murphy, distanced herself from the anti-abortion platform adopted by the national GOP at its recent convention in Tampa, Fla.
“I am different from my party in that I am a pro-choice candidate and I am an independent thinker,” McMahon said Monday. “I would respectfully disagree with my party on that issue.”
While there are some differences between how they view Planned Parenthood funding and insurance coverage rules, McMahon’s and Murphy’s positions on reproductive rights overlap.
“I think if there are abortions, then they should be safe and legal and rare,” McMahon said. “Look, here’s the thing, I do believe in women’s reproductive rights and women’s health issues. I’m all for those.”
Murphy said he supports the current law, which leaves it up to a woman and her doctor on whether to have an abortion in the first trimester of a pregnancy. He opposes the procedure known as partial-birth abortion, except in cases where it’s necessary to save the life of the mother.
McMahon said she doesn’t believe in late-term or partial-birth abortions. She only mentioned the exemption when asked.
“We’re really getting way into the weeds on this one,” she said. “I think if there is a late-term pregnancy and something has definitely gone wrong and I think a value judgement is made, I think the life of the mother would be put ahead of the late-term pregnancy. Neither is a good option.”
Murphy said there is no comparison between his record and McMahon’s rhetoric on who would uphold Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion.
“I’m 100 percent pro-choice. To be 100 percent pro-choice you have to commit to vote against party leadership that would support anti-choice legislation,” Murphy said. “It is not hyperbole to say that a vote for Linda McMahon is a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
Reiterating that she is unquestionably pro-choice, McMahon said the people she meets on the campaign trail are more concerned about the weak economy and high unemployment than a social litmus test.
“This is clearly not the main topic of conversation when I’m out talking to the people of Connecticut,” McMahon said.
Murphy has been endorsed by the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice America, the latter of which held a news conference Monday to slam McMahon over her support for a measure that would have allowed employers to opt out of providing contraception as part of their health insurance plans.
“I’ve spent my life as a leader on women’s health care and women’s rights issues,” Murphy said. “I defeated the leading anti-contraception state rep in 2006 and helped pass Connecticut’s contraception insurance mandate. In Congress, I wrote the legislation that establishes offices of women’s health in each of the five health care agencies of the federal government.”
McMahon has publicly expressed her support, albeit somewhat tepidly, for an amendment introduced earlier this year by Missouri Republican Roy Blunt in the Senate. That measure would have given not just religious organizations but all employers the ability to opt out of paying for contraception as part of their health care plans. The employer exemption died along party lines in the Senate.
“I said I would have reluctantly supported it,” McMahon said. “This is not a question about contraception. This is about separation of church and state. I just think that was an overreach and an overstep by government.”
When asked about the application of the Blunt amendment to employers that aren’t churches, Catholic hospitals or charities, McMahon said she was unclear on the scope of the proposed exemption.
“I’m not sure of that,” McMahon said. “I just know that the issue that was being addressed was the fact that the government was trying to force religious institutions to be engaged in something that went against their beliefs.”
Murphy said he supports the requirement that employers cover contraception, with a narrow exemption for churches or religious schools that don’t rely on federal funding like many Catholic hospitals do.
“I respect the wishes of the Catholic Church, but when they operate hospitals that are being run with more than 50 percent of taxpayer dollars, I think they should afford basic health care protections to all of their employees,” Murphy said. “I think it’s a different story if it’s a church or a religious school where you’re employing only members of your religious organization.”
Murphy said McMahon was trying to have it both ways by professing reluctant support for the measure.
“Somebody’s got to explain to Linda McMahon that there’s only two buttons next to your desk,” Murphy said. “There’s a green button and a red button. You can’t have it both ways. It is unbelievable that a candidate for U.S. Senate in Connecticut could be running on a platform of ending insurance coverage for birth control for millions of women in this country.”
Murphy supported the Affordable Care Act, while McMahon has said she would vote to repeal it if elected to the Senate. The signature legislation of President Barack Obama’s first term makes it illegal for insurance companies to charge more for health coverage based on gender.
Murphy said he supports federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which he accused congressional Republicans of trying to end.
McMahon opposes federal funding for abortions, but said that Planned Parenthood is a valuable resource for many women. “I’ve said that I would not vote to defund all of it,” McMahon said, declining to be more specific.
McMahon condemned the “legitimate rape” comment by Todd Akin, the party’s persona-non-grata nominee for Senate in Missouri.
“I thought the comment he made was outrageous ,and I certainly have no respect for that comment at all,” McMahon said. “It was just indefensible and outrageous.”
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