Susan B. Anthony List Defends Campaign Ads in Ohio

Are these pro-life billboards telling the truth about health-care reform?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — An elections commission in Ohio will convene today to consider whether a pro-life organization can put up billboards criticizing a candidate on his vote for Obamacare.

A federal court Oct. 25 allowed Democratic Rep. Steve Driehaus’ case to proceed against the Susan B. Anthony List.

The SBAL, which supports pro-life women running for public office, wanted to put up billboards saying Driehaus’ vote on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March was a vote for taxpayer funding of abortion.

The contentious sign reads: “Shame on Steve Driehaus. Driehaus voted for taxpayer-funded abortion.”

Taking SBAL’s side in the dispute is the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which said in an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, that the Ohio elections law Driehaus claims prevents the SBAL statement is unconstitutionally “vague and overbroad.”

Opposing the SBAL is Democrats for Life, which claims the group simply wants to see more Republicans elected.

Driehaus, a Catholic, was one of a group of pro-life Democrats led by Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak, whose opposition to President Obama’s health-care reform legislation proved a last-minute obstacle to passage this spring. After the president issued an order declaring federal health-care funds would not pay for abortions, most, including Driehaus, dropped their opposition. (Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski was the only holdout.)

The National Right to Life Committee and the Susan B. Anthony List and other national pro-life groups quickly argued that the order would not prevent the health insurance plan from funding abortions. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a firm supporter of universal health care in principle, opposed the legislation in its final form for the same reason.

But other groups, such as Catholics United (whose emphasis is on social justice) and the Catholic Health Association (speaking for the leadership of the nation’s Catholic hospitals) supported the legislation.

While the SBAL’s main goal has always been to elect pro-life women to the Senate, it is spending $6 million on the midterm elections, half of that in 42 close races, including those aimed at unseating so-called “Stupak Democrats” such as Driehaus and next-door neighbor Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania. Both have gone into their elections insisting on their pro-life credentials.

The SBAL bought billboard space in both states to accuse the two of voting for “taxpayer-funded abortion.” The billboards are up in Pennsylvania, but are being condemned there by groups such as Catholics United, Pax Christi and the Benedictine Sisters of Erie.

ACLU Support

On an Oct. 22 conference call involving those three groups and news media, Sister Marlene Bertke noted that not only did the legislation not fund abortion, it earmarked $250 million for poor and pregnant women: “There are fewer abortions when there is better care for women.” Of the billboards she said, “False advertising that has been taking place is morally wrong.”

Driehaus, a one-term incumbent who is badly trailing Republican opponent Steve Chabot, took more direct action. Before the billboards appeared, he instigated a preliminary hearing of the Ohio Elections Commission, which decided there was probable cause to call a full hearing of the commission on Oct. 28 into whether the ads would break the state’s election law against false campaign messaging. The Lamar billboard company then refused to run the ads until the issue was decided. The law carries criminal penalties.

The SBAL fought back, seeking a federal restraining order preventing the commission’s meeting and a ruling that the law in question violates the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

The SBAL has also bought $50,000 in radio ads to carry its message to voters in Driehaus’ district.

SBAL President Marjorie Dannenfelser says the health-insurance law contains several avenues down which federal tax dollars may flow to pay for abortions, one of them being “high-risk” insurance pools for those hitherto ineligible for insurance. When three such state funds came close to going into effect this summer, local pro-abortion groups began boasting they would cover abortions. According to Dannenfelser, only the noisy objections of the SBAL and other groups prompted the administration’s declaration that these funds would not go to abortion.

“If we have to do this 50 times in 50 states, it’s pretty clear proof the legislation itself doesn’t prevent funding going to abortion,” she told the Register.

As for the Ohio election regulations, “The proper place to argue about the legislation is not in an election tribunal; it’s in the public forum. That’s what our democracy is all about.”

But Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, says the commission exists for good reason — to “protect the voters from undue influence of people making false claims” — and should be used.

Catholics United believes that the health-insurance legislation prohibited federal funding for abortion. “So did the experts at the Catholic Health Association,” Korzen noted, as did independent analysts such as Timothy Jost, a professor at Washington and Lee University.

Abortion Can Be Crucial Issue

Dannenfelser says there is a good chance of a pro-life House of Representatives and of legislation that would “once and for all” ban federal funding for abortion. (Since 1976, pro-life members of Congress have pushed through the Hyde Amendment each year banning such funding for that session alone.)

The SBAL has “doubled down,” said Dannenfelser, with radio ads to outflank the informal ban on the billboard messaging orchestrated by Driehaus’ campaign team.

Said Dannenfelser, “We will not be intimidated.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.