Thomas Fitzgerald: Abortion brewing as Corbett campaign issue

Posted: May 01, 2013

No doubt the 2014 race for Pennsylvania governor will contain plenty of debate about jobs, jobs, and jobs. That's no surprise, since the economy ranks at the top of the list of issues state voters tell pollsters they care about most.

And yet the emotional issue of abortion, always lurking in politics but thrust into renewed prominence recently, may wind up haunting Gov. Corbett's reelection campaign.

Consider the trial of physician Kermit Gosnell, accused of four counts of first-degree murder for allegedly killing babies born alive after late-term abortions at his Women's Medical Society clinic in West Philadelphia. The case goes to the jury Tuesday after weeks of testimony about Gosnell's practices.

The case has become a rallying point for abortion-rights opponents, a reminder of what they see as the inherent horror of abortion. But it also has awakened the passions of forces favoring reproductive rights. They say it points to the need for access to safe abortion providers.

In addition, a bill has passed the Pennsylvania House to bar the sale of abortion coverage by private firms in the state health-insurance exchange mandated by Obamacare.

"The brutality in abortion is intimate, personal, and permanent," Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput wrote in a letter to Catholics last week. "It violates women, and it kills a developing human life every time - whether the venue is a 'Women's Medical Center'-style meat factory or a soothing suburban clinic."

Even as the archbishop's letter was going out Friday, President Obama became the first sitting chief executive to deliver a keynote address to Planned Parenthood, one of the nation's largest providers of abortions as well as other health services for women. Obama spoke against state legislative efforts to restrict access to abortion, calling them attempts "to turn back the clock to policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century."

So the issue is percolating.

Corbett, whose poll numbers are shaky for an incumbent, has a major problem with women voters by most measures. Monday's Quinnipiac University poll found women opposed to his reelection by a 2-1 margin - 54 percent to 27 percent. (He's considerably stronger among men, but still in negative territory.)

Democratic opponents are bound to try to widen the gender gap in the coming campaign - a tactic that worked wonders in the 2012 presidential race - perhaps by reminding voters of Corbett's "close your eyes" comment. He was referring to a bill requiring women to get an ultrasound in the 24 hours before an abortion.

Now, in context, Corbett was saying he didn't think anyone could be forced to look at a fetal image, and that in any case he opposed the type of ultrasound that involves an internal probe. Plus, the bill didn't pass.

But don't look for those distinctions to be honored in the heat of a campaign.

Another possible inflection point for the abortion issue: U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, was executive director three decades ago of a women's health center that provided abortions and other services.

To be sure, it was a reputable clinic, and all the major Democratic candidates have the same position on abortion as Schwartz, i.e. supporting a woman's right to choose.

Yet, most analysts looking to 2014 figure somebody will make an issue of that early entry on Schwartz's resumé. "It would be the biggest grassroots motivator in a generation," said GOP consultant Jeff Coleman, who is wired into the social-issues conservative movement.

In other words, economy or no economy, look for both sides to use abortion to rally the base.

"Could social issues become a real vote-decider next year?" said veteran pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. "It's a possibility."


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, The Big Tent, at www.philly.com/bigtent.

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