Quick Hit: A history of abortion-focused smear campaigns

Elizabeth Colbert Busch“What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you she had had an abortion?” As Sesali reported last week, South Carolina voters were asked this very question by a polling group seeking not to crunch numbers in preparation for today’s election but rather smear Mark Sanford’s Democratic opponent for the South Carolina’s First Congressional District. As shocking as this tactic may be, it’s nothing new. At The New Republic, Nora Caplan-Bricker (who graduated with me last year) writes:

Smears about abortion have a rich history outside of South Carolina as well. Abortion is such a four-letter word in conservative districts, politicians often try to pin their opponents with some connection to the procedure. Usually, when the candidate is male, the insinutation is that he allowed, or even forced, a wife, girlfriend, or daughter to get one. When the candidate is female, the smear can be even more direct: that she ended a pregnancy herself.

Typically, the women who have suffered this particular attack were pro-life Republicans, unlike the socially liberal, pro-choice Colbert Busch. Sue Myrick of North Carolina, until recently a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, ran for her party’s Senate nomination in 1992. When she lost, she claimed her opponent’s supporters had run a phone and mail campaign accusing her of having an abortion, among other things. “Everything was a lie,” she said then. “If I had been a male, they couldn’t have gotten away with any of this. People would have dismissed it.” In another Republican primary, for a Florida state senate seat in 1996, Charlie Clary reportedly arranged a push poll to target his female opponent. “Would you be more or less willing to vote for Lois Benson if you knew she had an abortion?” it asked. Clary beat Benson for the nomination.

Caplan-Bricker is doubtful the most recent push poll will hurt Colbert Busch’s chances, given some voters’ expressed disapproval of the tactic and Sanford’s legitimately sullied history. We’d hope, though, that a campaign like this wouldn’t work not because the other guy is “worse” but because a previous abortion–whether fabricated by an opponent or not–would carry no stigma. Keep your eyes on today’s polls and your fingers crossed.

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