Right to Life mailers make dubious claims about later in pregnancy abortions in Oregon

By Amelia Templeton (OPB)
Nov. 2, 2022 1 p.m. Updated: Nov. 2, 2022 6:55 p.m.

Mailers sent in several Oregon Senate districts point to Democratic candidates’ liberal positions on abortion law in a bid to make it a winning issue for Republicans

A sampling of political flyers focusing on abortion rights, sent to voters in Oregon Senate districts.

A sampling of political flyers focusing on abortion rights, sent to voters in Oregon Senate districts.

Photo illustration by Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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In line with national trends, most Oregon Republicans are trying to avoid the issue of abortion, scrubbing it from their websites to focus instead on issues like inflation, crime, and education that capitalize on discontent with Democrats in power.

But Oregon Right to Life is working to keep abortion front and center. The group opposes the procedure at any point of gestation without broad exceptions for rape or the health of the mother and opposes IVF and some forms of contraception. And this fall, the nonprofit advocacy organization and its associated political action committee are using Oregon’s status as the state with the most unrestricted access to abortion in the nation to try to turn out Republican voters in several key races that could determine whether the party flips control of the Oregon Senate.

Oregon Right to Life sent mailers making dubious claims about what they call “late-term abortions” in Oregon. And attacking some Democratic candidates for the state Senate, including Mark Meek, Melissa Busch, and Richard Walsh, who have been endorsed by Planned Parenthood. At least one of the three Republicans in those races said he had no idea the attacks had been sent.

“Babies have to watch their backs,” the mailers read, over a stock photo of a healthy baby. The Democratic candidates, the flyers warn, “support late-term abortions for any reason even up to the moment of birth in the 9th month of pregnancy.”

In fact, abortions are rarely performed after the end of the second trimester, around 27 weeks.

Greyson Dempsey, a longtime reproductive rights advocate in Oregon, believes the mailers may backfire.

“We know there is a contingent of Democratic voters who are frustrated and want change and are maybe more moderate,” Dempsey said. “What they don’t want is to remind them if they vote for that Republican, he’s going to take away abortion rights.”

Oregon Democrats have seized on this tactic and are putting abortion rights front and center in their campaign messaging right now, hoping to benefit from a wave of outrage over the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

Oregon Democrats are putting abortion rights front and center in their campaign messaging, such as in this mailer from Tina Kotek, Democratic candidate for governor.

Oregon Democrats are putting abortion rights front and center in their campaign messaging, such as in this mailer from Tina Kotek, Democratic candidate for governor.

Courtesy of James Winkelman

A recent mailer from Tina Kotek, Democratic candidate for governor, features a pink background and the candidate in a t-shirt with the slogan “I stand with Planned Parenthood.”

And Democrats aren’t shying away from the attack. Mailers paid for by the Democratic Party of Oregon targeting state Senate candidate Kim Thatcher, a Republican running in redrawn District 11, brand her as “dangerous and extreme” for her position on abortion.

“For fifty years, women have had the right to make their own healthcare decisions,” one reads, “but Kim Thatcher thinks those decisions should be made by the government.”

The truth about abortions later in pregnancy

For their part, Oregon Right to Life appears to be trying to appeal to the electorate’s broad discomfort with abortions performed later in pregnancy.

In a recent survey by the nonpartisan polling firm DHM research, 65% of Oregonians identified as pro-choice. But even in a reliably pro-abortion-rights state like Oregon, support for abortion tends to decline as pregnancy progresses. A majority of those polled — 58% — expressed some support for making abortion illegal in the third trimester, except when needed to save the life of the mother.

Oregon does not have any gestational limit on abortion, a policy it shares with six other states and the District of Columbia. But, though data is limited, there’s no evidence that doctors are performing abortions in Oregon in the ninth month of pregnancy, “for any reason even up to the moment of birth,” as claimed in the mailers.

The Oregon Health Authority, which publishes data on abortion, has no breakdown of whether any abortions occur in the eighth or ninth month of pregnancy. But the data the agency does have indicates the procedure remains very rare: Last year, only 59 abortions in Oregon, or fewer than 1%, occurred at or after 23 weeks. The majority — 89% — occurred at or before 12 weeks, commonly known as the first trimester. That’s consistent with national trends.

Reproductive health care advocates — and an independent expert — say the claims made in the mailers misrepresent abortion by focusing on the rarest cases and fail to consider the circumstances that lead most people to get an abortion in the second or third trimester.

Dr. Paula Bednarek, the medical director of Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, says many cases of later abortion involve the pregnant person’s health or serious complications with a pregnancy.

“Doctors and patients need all their options when something goes horribly wrong during a person’s pregnancy. These are often circumstances where a person has been pregnant for months and is devastated to end a pregnancy,” she wrote in an email.

Oregon Right to Life stands by its framing of the issue and disputes that most cases of late abortion involve medical issues.

Oregon Right to Life sent mailers making claims about what they call “late-term abortions” in Oregon. This flyer attacked Democratic candidate for the state Senate, Mark Meek, who has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood.

Oregon Right to Life sent mailers making claims about what they call “late-term abortions” in Oregon. This flyer attacked Democratic candidate for the state Senate, Mark Meek, who has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood.

Courtesy of Emily Green

“Abortion-rights activists typically don’t mince words — they want abortion available for every pregnancy,” said Lois Anderson, executive director of Oregon Right to Life. “But that doesn’t change the fact that the intended outcome of every abortion is the death of the fetus.”

ln an email to OPB about the mailers, the group cited a sentence taken from an article authored by Diana Green Foster, a long-time abortion researcher from the University of California San Francisco, saying that most people getting later abortions “are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.”

Foster has issued a correction to that article, saying her statement “has been misinterpreted” and only refers to abortions between 20 and 28 weeks. The “vast majority” of abortions that occur after 20 weeks happen close to that time and the limited data available suggests that the tiny number of abortions occurring after 28 weeks are more likely to involve fetal health, the correction states.

What is known about why later abortions happen

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Katrina Kimport, a professor at the University of California San Francisco researches abortion and interviews women who have had abortions later in pregnancy. She disagrees with characterizing Oregon’s current policy as allowing abortion “up until the moment of birth.”

“It’s a nonsensical framing,” she said.

Kimport, who worked with Foster on the corrected research cited inaccurately by Oregon Right to Life, said there’s little comprehensive data on abortions later in pregnancy, but her interview-based research shows that the women she spoke with who were seeking abortions later in pregnancy typically fall into one of two groups.

In the first group, a person learns new information about their pregnancy.

For many, that means learning about a serious fetal health issue or developmental abnormality. A tremendous amount of brain development happens at the end of the second trimester, meaning serious brain and neurological health problems often aren’t diagnosed until around that time.

Gestational time limits on abortion can lead parents to feel pressured to make a decision before they’ve had time to get follow-up tests or meet with specialists to learn more about the prognosis of their fetus, Kimport said. And very few state abortion bans include an exception for fetal anomalies.

“There are a heartbreaking number of ways that pregnancy can go wrong and the people I interviewed who had serious medical health issues — all of them did not qualify as an exception in their state,” she said.

For others, the new information may be the pregnancy itself: People who seek abortions later are more likely to have discovered they are pregnant later.

In the second group are people who know they want an abortion much earlier in pregnancy, but face obstacles like a lack of providers in their area, a lack of money to pay for the procedure, or domestic violence.

Kimport says over time, the number of abortions later in pregnancy has been remarkably stable, at around 1% nationally. But with more states banning abortion, she expects that percentage may rise as more people encounter barriers in their state and experience delays.

“That’s something that I actually think we may see an increase,” she said.

Republicans’ reactions to abortion mailers vary

Oregon Right to Life declined to say to how many Senate districts they had sent mailers. Campaign finance records show the group spent over $22,000 on postage in late September.

Residents have received the mailers in at least three districts with tight races. Those are Oregon Senate District 20, redrawn in 2021, which includes Happy Valley, Gladstone, and Oregon City, where the race is between Meek, the Democrat, and Republican Bill Kennemer.

In an email to OPB, Kennemer distanced himself from Oregon Right to Life, saying he had not sought their endorsement and did not accept money from their PAC in this election cycle.

He said he was not aware of the “Babies Have to Watch Their Backs” mailer targeting his opponent “until I received it in my mailbox.”

Kennemer, who does not mention abortion on his website, said his voting record shows that he opposes abortion, though he said he supports exceptions for rape, incest, and health of the mother. Kennmer said Oregon voters have made it clear at the ballot box that they support abortion, including public funding for abortion. He said that following the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v Wade, any further changes to abortion policy in Oregon should be made directly by voters.

“It is my value and responsibility as a lawmaker to listen to the will of voters and give their concerns my best consideration as I represent their views in Salem, and not always my own,” Kennmer wrote.

In Oregon Senate District 16, which includes Tillamook and Astoria, the mailers targeted Busch, a nurse and a Democrat running against Republican State Representative Suzanne Webber.

Neither candidate mentions abortion on their campaign website, though Busch has written about her position in campaign newsletters. Busch lists her endorsement from Planned Parenthood and Webber notes hers from Oregon Right to Life.

In an email, Busch described herself as “unapologetically” pro-choice.

“I am proud to be a nurse who believes that abortion is healthcare and these decisions should be made by people and their doctors, not by politicians, like my opponent,” she wrote.

People in the community, she added, have contacted her “angry about the content of the mailers, because they felt it was inaccurate and offensive.”

Webber said she too was aware of the mailers but does not control what groups like Oregon Right to Life and the NRA are sending on her behalf.

“I’ve noticed some Democrats running for office bringing up the issue of abortion, but honestly they’re the only ones,” Webber wrote in an email to OPB, saying her constituents rarely ask about it. “My constituents are asking me about housing, homelessness, getting employees for their businesses, infrastructure, restoring educational standards etc.”

Mailers paid for by the Democratic Party of Oregon targeting state Senate candidate Kim Thatcher, a Republican running in redrawn District 11, brand her as “dangerous and extreme” for her position on abortion.

Mailers paid for by the Democratic Party of Oregon targeting state Senate candidate Kim Thatcher, a Republican running in redrawn District 11, brand her as “dangerous and extreme” for her position on abortion.

Courtesy of Kathryn Tussing

The mailers have also gone out in the race between Republican state Senator Thatcher and Walsh, a Democrat and an attorney, for the newly drawn District 11, which includes North Salem. Unlike some other Republican candidates this cycle, Thatcher has been outspoken about her opposition to abortion, joining Oregon Right to Life and members of the group The Abortion Survivors Network at a press conference last week. She’s among those Oregon Democrats who have gone after her for her views on abortion with their own attack ads.

“We have pro-life candidates all over the state being attacked for being extreme when in reality it is our existing laws in Oregon that are extreme,” Thatcher said during the event.

The issue is likely to remain in the spotlight locally. Oregon Right To Life has said it is working on a bill for the 2023 legislative session banning later abortions.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Oregon Right to Life’s request that their statement be attributed to Lois Anderson, the organization’s executive director.

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