Anti-abortion bills divide state GOP
With expanded clout in the Legislature for Republicans, who earned a split in the Senate and picked up seats in the House last November, a disconnect between the party’s social conservative and moderate wings over anti-abortion legislation is creating an awkward tension.
A number of GOP lawmakers have distanced themselves from a pair of bills revived by their colleagues — one is a parental notification requirement for minors and the other would force women to have an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy.
Their mindset is that anything that diverts attention from the GOP’s fiscal agenda, from deficit-reduction to state employee pension reform, could stymie the momentum of Republicans in a blue state such as Connecticut. That contradicts the socially conservative slant of the national GOP and President Donald Trump, who last month signed an executive order withholding federal funds from international groups that perform abortions.
“So now this becomes a whole big discussion about these issues instead of talking about the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is the state’s financial condition,” said state Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield.
During a League of Women Voters legislative forum last week in Fairfield, GOP lawmakers were pressed about the two anti-abortion measures, which were reintroduced after unsuccessful attempts in previous sessions. But there was more of an appetite to discuss the state’s $1.4 billion budget deficit and sluggish economic recovery.
“That’s what we campaigned on throughout the entire spring, summer and fall,” Kupchick said.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, downplayed the divisions within her caucus over anti-abortion legislation, but acknowledged that pocket-book isssues are the calling card of the GOP.
“We have always been and will continue to be very proud of the fact that we are a big tent party,” Klarides said. “Having said that, as important as those issues are, our first and foremost priority is getting the state back on fiscal track. That’s why none of the other stuff matters if people cannot afford to live here and businesses cannot afford to stay here.”
Emblematic of the struggle for Republicans over the party’s identity is state Rep. Alfred Camillo, R-Greenwich, who was an intial sponsor of the parental notification and ultrasound bills, but then removed his name from both proposals.
Camillo said that while he supports a parental notification requirement, the bill does not make an exception for minors to notify a third-party in cases of incest or abuse by a parent. The language of the ultrasound bill differed from how the proposal was initially characterized and left out a reference to its support by the Knights of Columbus, he said.
“Most of our time at the Capitol is spent working on turning the fiscal ship of the state around,” Camillo said of Republicans. “But many of us are focused on many other issues like public safety, public health and commerce.”
Camillo’s reversal on both pieces of legislation — introduced in the Senate by Danbury Republican Michael McLachlan — followed a lobbying push by Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. The group said it met with Camillo, who is co-chair of the Legislature’s Catholic Roundtable, and gave him a tour of one of its health centers.
“It’s usually really an eye-opener for them especially if they have misonceptions about who we are and what we do,” said Susan Yolen, the group’s vice president for policy and advocacy. “I think he heard loud and clear from his consitutuents that they were concerned about these bills.”
Yolen said the number of abortions performed on women under the age of 18 in Connecticut has plummeted from 684 in 2011 to 360 in 2015. Ultrasounds are always administered when an abortion is done, she said.
“It’s the standard of care because physicians have decided it, not because politicians have decided to make it so,” Yolen said.
McLachlan was not available for comment and said he was tied up in bill-screening meetings.
Four states require expectant mothers to view an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy, while nine other states must give a woman the opportunity to see the ultrasound, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health policy.
“When women view the ultrasound, they often change their mind,” said Chris O’Brien, vice president of Connecticut Right to Life. “It might be too soon for something like this in Connecticut. (But) I think Sen. McLachlan’s heart is in the right place.”
Planned Parenthood also opposes the parental notification bill, citing a 1990 state law that requires minors under 16 to be counseled by a doctor, nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant, clergy member or licensed social worker before having an abortion.
“Family communication is hard to legislate,” Yolen said. “Sometimes a family is a source of the abuse and pregnancy.”
O’Brien said pro-life groups are open to creating exemptions for extenuating cases and that another pending bill would give minors the option to bypass their parents with a judge’s approval.
Both Klarides and Kupchick said they are torn over the parental notification bill, but are opposed to the ultrasound measure.
Klarides, the first female to lead the House GOP caucus, said she is sensitive to pregnancy cases involving victims of abuse or incest. At the same time, she said, parental consent is required for far less.
“On the other hand, you need your parents’ permission to take an aspirin in school,” Klarides said.
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