While Democrats and Republicans have been arguing throughout the campaign season about women's reproductive rights, the issue has now taken center stage in a Democratic congressional primary in Michigan, where a frontrunner is facing criticism for once voting for a bill to direct government money away from abortion providers.
Former state Rep. Steve Pestka earned a zero percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood while serving in the Michigan legislature. That record, based on 15 votes between 2001 and 2002, included a vote granting preferential treatment to health care clinics that don't provide abortions.
In that December 2001 vote, Pestka voted along with 53 Republicans for House Bill 4655 to direct government money away from abortion providers like Planned Parenthood. Thirty-four Democrats and four Republicans opposed the measure.
Democrats spoke directly to the GOP caucus and Pestka on the floor, arguing that the bill would block "access to vital health care services, such as cervical and breast cancer screening, testing for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy testing and counseling and community education," according to the legislative record.
The bill "would have a devastating impact on the availability of family planning services to the women and men in Michigan," they argued.
Analysts reviewing HB 4655 found it would redistribute money away from abortion providers and toward comparable clinics not offering abortion services. Because no alternatives to Planned Parenthood existed in Michigan, the clinics did not ultimately lose funding.
Pestka recently said he regrets his vote, however symbolic, and he has promised he won't vote to make abortions illegal. But he said his personal views on abortion remain unchanged.
In an interview with Between The Lines, Pestka declined to fully explain his views on abortion, saying only that his voting history in the state legislature was "pro-life" and that it would "not be an issue in the race."
“I consider myself to be personally pro-life to the extent that I would never advocate to anyone that they get an abortion, but at the end of the day that’s not my decision to make," he also said in an interview with The Battle Creek Enquirer.
"I don’t believe in making abortion illegal," he said, adding, "Let me be very clear about this. I am not in support of any legislation before the United States Congress that would defund Planned Parenthood.”
Pestka, 60, is running against Trevor Thomas, 29, for the chance to challenge Republican incumbent Rep. Justin Amash in November. Amash, a Tea Party favorite with Libertarian tendencies, is also not pro-choice. The seat has been held by Republicans since 1976.
The Thomas campaign has attacked Pestka's record in recent emails to supporters, pressing the former assistant prosecuting attorney, Kent County commissioner and circuit court judge to answer questions about his anti-choice record.
"Steve Pestka doesn't want to be talking about this issue -- but guess what, Americans across the country are paying attention to attacks on women and Democratic primary voters want a leader they can trust on core values," Thomas' campaign manager Clint Wallace said in a recent statement. "Now that Pestka's votes are coming to light, he's trying to figure out what position to take. That's not leadership, that's more of the same from politicians."
While Thomas and his campaign have been quick to highlight what would appear to be a convenient political flip-flop, Pestka insists it was his time away from the legislature and his work as a judge that led to an evolution in his views.
Dana Houle, Peskta's campaign manager, echoed that sentiment in an interview with Grand Rapids News, saying Peskta’s policy outlook on abortion issues had shifted gradually during his time away from the legislative body. That shift, Houle insisted, was made "in the absence of any political ambition" and "without bearing of the current debate."
Thomas, who is openly gay and previously served as the communications director at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, has made clear that he doesn't equivocate on the issue.
"I believe every woman should have access to healthcare services, particularly those who are hurting most in these difficult economic times," he said in a statement. "This is not a political issue, it's personal and strikes at the heart of who we are as a community."
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