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Myers: Is Heck really an abortion opponent?

Abortion has been an issue between Republican Joe Heck and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto in their U.S. Senate race. This surprised me because I didn’t remember Heck being particularly opposed to abortion when he was a state legislator. Nor has there been any news coverage this year telling us what his position is.

Abortion is an issue that is rarely reported well, particularly in this era of second-rate political journalism. What most reporters do is ask something like, “What is your position on abortion?” But the answer to that question is essentially useless. It is on ancillary abortion issues, not abortion itself, that the issue is fought out these days and policy is decided.

So I interviewed Heck on the topic. I asked him the initial, basic question – “What would you describe your abortion position as?”

Heck: “Well, I’m a pro-life candidate, but I support the Hyde amendment. Taxpayer funds should not be used to support abortion with the exception of rape, incest, or life of the mother.”

Then I asked about the issues that determine abortion policy. Would he vote to prohibit abortion with a constitutional amendment?

Heck: “No, I don’t believe in changing the constitution on social issues.”

Did he support parental notification?

Heck: “I support parental notification.”

Parental consent?

Heck: “I don’t think parental consent is necessary.”

A judicial bypass so young women can go to a judge instead of notifying or obtaining consent from parents?

Heck: “I think there needs to be parental notification.”

So we have a candidate who opposes outlawing abortion through constitutional change, supports parental notification, opposes parental consent, remains silent on judicial bypass, and supports taxpayer funds for abortions in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother.

I was reminded of Robert Sader, a state legislator who in the 1980s and ’90s chaired the Nevada Assembly Judiciary Committee when it processed a parental notification bill. Sader is a Democrat, an abortion supporter, and he voted for parental notification. He would have opposed constitutional change like Heck. He would have opposed parental consent like Heck. He might have gone further on tax-funded abortions, but his position was pretty close to Heck’s. In other words, Democratic abortion supporter Sader and Republican abortion opponent Heck had very similar stances. Thus, as abortion opponents go, Heck is one of the least zealous I have ever encountered.

Keep in mind that he is a physician, and medicine generally considers this a health issue and not a political issue.

Part of the difficulty is language. Heck has been able to portray himself as an abortion opponent by calling himself “pro-life.”

That’s a buzz-word, a term invented by California Gov. Jerry Brown to describe a word that suggests a position without actually committing a politician to anything. Terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are used by advocates but raise ethical questions for journalists. They carry implications that may or may not be true (if one side is pro-life, that means the other side is anti-life?). We don’t let other interest groups decide what language we use, so why do we do it here? Calling things by their right names is part of our work.

A far more proper journalistic practice would be to avoid subjective terms demanded by activists and instead use language determined by the issue itself – “abortion opponent” and “abortion supporter.”

It would also help if reporters would nail down in greater detail the nature of politicians’ stances on abortion instead of just for/against.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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