The Senate race in Montana is going to a be a tough one, that's for sure. Democrats currently hold the seat, but this is one state where Republicans have a clear shot at an upset this November. Senator John Walsh has just released a rather amazing television ad, though, which is the best pushback on the "personhood" concept I think I've ever seen. Because it features a rape victim telling her own story.
Before I get to the ad, here is a quick overview of the race. Senator Max Baucus announced he was going to retire a while back, and then quickly got himself appointed to be ambassador to China -- which meant that it wouldn't just be a race for an open seat, but rather the Democratic governor had the opportunity to appoint someone in the meantime. John Walsh is now running as an incumbent, rather than just a Democratic hopeful. Many hoped Brian Schweitzer, now a popular Democratic ex-governor, would run for the Senate seat, but he declined to enter the race, leaving Walsh to fight to hold his appointed seat. But even being an incumbent might not be enough to get him elected.
On the Republican side, the frontrunner for the nomination is Congressman Steve Daines, who was a cosponsor of the "Life at Conception Act" last year in the House. This would mandate "personhood" at the moment of conception -- which would then lead to getting rid of all legal abortion (or so its backers believe).
This is why the ad is so powerful. You can view the ad from The Huffington Post article about it, or read the following full transcript (all of which follows the candidate's "I approved this ad" statement):
I was raped when I was 14-years-old. I know the pain it caused me. That's why it's so insulting that Congressman Steve Daines sponsored a bill to make abortion illegal for victims of sexual assault. He's even proposed making women criminals for having an abortion. Ultimately, I got the support I needed -- to live again. But if politicians like Congressman Daines have their way, other women will be left with no options at all.
The woman in the ad is Melissa Barcroft, of Helena. She is giving her personal testimony as to what happened to her, and what would happen to women in her situation if "personhood" laws were ever to be passed. It is a powerful statement.
It is also a brilliant political ad. I have been urging Democrats to create precisely this type of ad for years now, to point out exactly what "no exceptions for rape or incest" would mean to real, live people. But I can't claim credit for the idea. I first read the suggestion in Drew Westen's excellent book The Political Brain: The Role Of Emotion In Deciding The Fate Of The Nation, where he provides a few scripts for ads he thinks Democrats should be running on the abortion subject:
"My opponent puts the rights of rapists above the rights of their victims, guaranteeing every rapist the right to choose the mother of his child. What he's proposing is a rapists' bill of rights."
This is the logical entailment of the Republicans' "culture of life." Perhaps the most fundamental right of a woman is to choose whose children she will bear. Yet in the Republican morality tale, if a woman is raped, she must have her rapist's baby. She can give up the child -- who is her own flesh and blood, mingled with the DNA of her rapist -- or she can wake up every morning and see the eyes of her rapist in her child. Those are her two choices. Tell that to the father of a teenage girl in rural Virginia and see how he responds. It is a deeply repugnant, and deeply immoral, position. But its repugnance is only apparent when you make the associative links.
Here is another example:
"My opponent believes that if a 16-year-old girl is molested by her father, she should be forced by the government to have his child, and if she doesn't want to, she should be forced by the government to go to the man who raped her and ask for his consent."
He wrote this passage in response to the Republican Party putting in its 2004 platform an extreme "no exceptions allowed" stance on abortion. Updating it to today's terminology is easy -- just replace the quoted phrase "culture of life" with the new "personhood."
I first wrote about this issue back in 2011 (where I quoted Westen's suggested ads and added one of my own). Back then, Herman Cain was campaigning in Iowa. Cain had been forced to shift his position on abortion from sounding quite reasonable (using a standard "get the government out of people's lives" conservative argument -- and even using the word "choice") to staking out the most extreme "never in any circumstances" abortion position possible (once he figured out what the Republican primary voters thought about the issue, of course). But it wasn't just Cain who had to make this transition. As I pointed out back then:
These are the consequences of drawing such a bright line on the abortion issue. Republican politicians have previously used an "out" when speaking of the issue, declaring that while they'd prefer to see abortion completely outlawed, their hands are tied by those dastardly liberal courts -- so they reluctantly are forced to admit that abortions must be legal in the cases of rape, incest, or threats to the mother's life. This position has served a generation of Republican candidates well, stretching back to the mid-1980s.
But now, it seems, this position is no longer extreme enough to get elected (at least, in Iowa, whose very-conservative Republican voters are currently being courted by the candidates). Republican politicians like Cain and others now feel free to openly stake out the most unforgiving abortion stance they possibly can.
The media should really call them on it, but I'm not exactly holding my breath waiting for this to happen. I did see one Republican candidate asked by a journalist about victims of rape and incest, and he brushed it off as something that was, statistically, quite rare. That is of little use to a teenager in such a position, though. "Sorry, you are statistically insignificant, therefore you must have your rapist's baby" is cold comfort indeed.
But while the media timidly refuse to follow the Republican logic through to the unavoidable conclusions, Democrats should be under no such compunction. Call the Cain position on abortion what it really is, in as blunt terms as possible. Make that connection in voters' minds. Force the issue.
Finally, in Montana, a Democrat is doing just that. The language isn't as blunt as I might have scripted, but then who am I to put words into the mouth of someone who has personally lived through such a horrific experience? This is personal testimony, and I find Melissa Barcroft's words to be both moving and powerful. She personifies what the result of such legislation would mean. She is a living, breathing woman whose life would have been far different if "personhood" were the law of the land when she was raped as a teenager.
Because she would have been forced to bear her rapist's child. The rapist's fatherhood rights would trump her rights. This is exactly what "personhood" will lead to: allowing a rapist to choose the mother of his child.
Senator John Walsh's campaign is reportedly going to spend "six figures" to put this ad online and on both broadcast and cable television. Walsh has a very tough campaign in front of him, but so far at least he looks like he's going to fight hard to keep his seat. Democrats elsewhere should take note, because this is an excellent way to address the whole "personhood" issue -- by pointing out exactly what it will mean to real women. In no uncertain terms.
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