Tim Pawlenty’s Dilemma: How Far Will His Anti-Choice Extremism Go?

Republican presidential hopeful and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has a problem, the same problem every GOP aspirant has: he wants to be radical enough for the party’s base, yet he has to appear anodyne enough for the rest of the country if he wins the nomination.

In Pawlenty’s case, the answer to the latter call was to write an extremely dull book about himself, Courage to Stand. Conor Friedersdorf, for one, is unimpressed. Noting Pawlenty’s distinctly uncourageous life story, he writes: “a more accurate biography theme would be, ‘Well Adjusted Man From Loving Family Is Hardworking, Unlikely To Do Anything Terribly Objectionable, And Possessed Of More Wisdom Than Average.'”

Some anti-choice activists, though, are hailing Pawlenty as an ahead-of-the-curve, shall we say courageous advocate for their increasingly radical agenda. The conservative piece on Pawlenty’s anti-choice record, by Steven Ertelt, editor of the highly partisan LifeNews.com*, suggests that Pawlenty was at the forefront of the anti-choice measures that were gaining ground in several states in the early 2000s. Over at the Nation, George Zornick uses the piece to point out Pawlenty’s anti-choice extremism.

By 2011 standards, though, Pawlenty’s anti-choice crusades seem downright mild. Although Zornick notes that Minnesota, while Pawlenty was governor, was one of the first states to enact a law requiring that women seeking an abortion would be offered the scientifically unproven claims that the fetus experiences pain, in their 2011 legislative sessions, several states, including Minnesota, have introduced legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks based on the disproven claim that the fetus feels pain. (Minnesota’s current governor, Democrat Mark Dayton, has pledged a veto.) Such a ban was enacted in Nebraska in 2010, and four more states — Kansas, Indiana, Idaho, and Oklahoma — enacted one this year.

The question, then, for the 2012 GOP hopefuls is whether they support these even more radical measures, including elimination of family planning funding, 20-week abortion bans with functionally no exceptions, laws requiring women visit religiously-motivated crisis pregnancy centers before they can obtain an abortion, and the elimination of abortion coverage from private insurance, to name several of the growing list of restrictions at the state level. Because the anti-choice base will want to hear a rah-rah for all of that, but moderate general election voters may well be appalled by the prospect of, say, the state deciding that a woman facing a complicated pregnancy that puts her health at grave risk must carry that pregnancy to term.

In 2003, Pawlenty signed in to law the Woman’s Right to Know Act, joining several other states in enacting counseling requirements for women seeking abortions. According to a 2003 state legislative roundup from the Guttmacher Institute:

In 2003, four states—Minnesota, Missouri, Texas and West Virginia—enacted new laws requiring women seeking an abortion to receive state-directed counseling, while three others—Arkansas, South Dakota and Virginia—expanded their existing laws; Missouri’s new law was enjoined pending a legal challenge. This year’s actions bring to 27 the number of states with state-directed counseling requirements in effect.

(emphasis added). The Minnesota bill did require that the woman be informed “whether or not an anesthetic or analgesic would eliminate or alleviate organic pain to the unborn child caused by the particular method of abortion to be employed and the particular medical benefits and risks associated with the particular anesthetic or analgesic,” which was novel at the time, but it’s an exaggeration, to be sure, to claim that the Minnesota bill was the model for the 20-week ban laws. In two other states in 2003, Oregon and Montana, antichoice activists were unsuccessful in their attempts to enact fetal pain provisions. Fetal pain was becoming a rallying cry for anti-choice activists at that time, after the judge in a case challenging a late-term abortion ban refused to hear evidence on it.

Ertelt heralds another Pawlenty-signed law from 2005, claiming that “Minnesota was also the first to give women information on fetal pain — coming well in advance of the new trend of banning abortions based on that scientific concept, which Nebraska started last year.” (Note: there is no scientific evidence of fetal pain during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, yet Nebraska has taken the lead on banning abortions at 20 weeks based that false claim, as I noted above.) But again, Minnesota was not alone. Here’s Guttmacher’s legislative roundup from 2005:

[A]ntiabortion legislators continued their attempts to require that women obtaining an abortion be given specific information under the aegis of “informed consent,” many times including information that cannot be scientifically supported. In 2005 alone, 73 such mandatory counseling measures were introduced, and laws were enacted in seven states (Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Dakota). The new laws in Arkansas, Georgia and Minnesota require that women be told that a fetus may be able to feel pain (and that they be offered the option of having anesthesia administered directly to the fetus), even though there is no scientific evidence to support this statement; these provisions are similar to an existing law in Illinois.

(emphasis added). Indeed Sam Brownback, now Kansas’ governor who signed a 20-week ban based on fetal pain into law, but then a senator, introduced the “Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act” in the Senate in 2004; anti-choice crusader Chris Smith introduced it in the House. Had it passed, it would have required abortion providers to tell a woman seeking an abortion that “you have the option of choosing to have anesthesia or other pain-reducing drug or drugs administered directly to the pain-capable unborn child if you so desire.”

Through this lens, Pawlenty appears to have been a sycophantic early adopter adopter of the anti-choice movement’s steady march to eliminate access to abortion, and even family planning services. How far will he march with it in 2011 and 2012?

Pawlenty is frequently derided as merely the most boring of the candidates. But the real intrigue is not whether someone so dull can win the nomination, but rather whether this self-styled man of courage will spurn science, reason, and the health and well-being of American women to garner primary votes, and how he would spin all that if he did face general election voters.

*This post originally incorrectly referred to the site as LifeSiteNews.