In Tim Pawlenty’s recent autobiography Courage to Stand, the word “abortion” only appears once in nearly 300 pages sketching his life story and record as governor of Minnesota. Pawlenty blandly characterizes abortion as a “lightning-rod issue associated with social policy,” and goes on only to say “I’m pro-life.”
This is the sort of book politicians write to introduce themselves to a national audience—but here and in most other speeches and interviews, Pawlenty seems reluctant to talk about his views on abortion. The issues page of his campaign website contains only one reference to his abortion stance, a three-sentence statement on the annual March for Life.
In reality, however, Pawlenty's views on a woman's right to choose are among the more extreme in the emerging GOP field. National Review dubbed Pawlenty as possibly “the strongest pro-life candidate in 2012.” Under Pawlenty, who is an evangelical Christian, Minnesota was the first state to give women bogus information on “fetal pain” in an effort to dissuade them from having an abortion. He also signed laws providing women with information about “alternatives” to abortion, which became a model for other states, and has engaged in years of direct outreach to extreme antichoice groups.
“The more women voters learn about Governor Pawlenty’s anti–women’s health record, the more impossible it will be for him to pick up the support of independent voters in the general election,” said Dawn Laguens of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
That may be true, but Pawlenty first needs to win over the social conservative base that dominates crucial states like Iowa and South Carolina. There’s a lot for them to like.
Less than one year into his governorship, Pawlenty signed the Women’s Right to Know Act of 2003. The law required physicians to provide women with information about abortion alternatives at least twenty-four hours prior to the procedure, including a list of adoption centers, detailed information about fetal development, and a description of the risks associated with abortion procedures.
Shortly after the law was enacted, controversy erupted over the information the Minnesota Department of Health was providing to women. On its website, MDH claimed that several studies had found a link between induced abortion and breast cancer rates, a long-debunked claim of antichoice activists. This prompted the nonpartisan Minnesota Medical Association to criticize MDH and demand the information be removed, lest the episode “erode the Department’s credibility.” In a letter to Pawlenty, the Minnesota Public Health Association, another nonpartisan group, said the state health department “should not be used to advance a political opinion.”
In the midst of the controversy, Pawlenty’s state health commissioner admitted that those areas of the department’s website were developed not by medical experts but rather in consultation with Minnesota Citizen’s Concerned for Life, a leading antichoice group in the state.
It’s impossible to know how many women were dissuaded from getting an abortion based on this faulty information, though in the first full year under the Women’s Right to Know Act, 15,859 pregnant women were given the state’s information, and 13,788 went through with the procedure.
Two years later, Pawlenty signed the Unborn Child Prevention Act, making Minnesota the first state in the nation to mandate that pregnant women considering an abortion receive information about “fetal pain.”
Though the position of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is that there is “no legitimate scientific information that supports the statement that a fetus experiences pain,” the law requires abortion doctors and referring physicians to inform pregnant women seeking an abortion that “pain-reducing medication” is available for their fetus. Women in Minnesota seeking an abortion must now sign a form either requesting or refusing pain-reducing medication for their unborn child.
Currently, sixteen states are following Pawlenty’s lead in Minnesota and trying to enact “fetal pain” bills. Nebraska has already enacted such a law, and similar bills have passed both legislative houses in Kansas, Oklahoma and Idaho. Indiana and Iowa have passed fetal pain bills in one chamber.
Pawlenty also never missed an opportunity to appoint strongly antichoice jurists to the Minnesota Supreme Court, appointing four judges that openly disagree with Roe v. Wade.
In 2008 he named Eric Magnuson chief justice of the court. Manguson has a long record of opposing abortion rights, and once wrote an amicus brief on behalf of an antichoice group arguing that taxpayer money shouldn’t go to abortion services.
Interestingly, National Review credits Pawlenty’s record on judges to his wife, Mary, a former judge that converted Pawlenty from Catholicism to evangelical Christianity during their courtship. “Although pro-life voters appreciated the pro-life actions of presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and George W. Bush, their wives did not share their prolife perspective. Mary Pawlenty, an evangelical who attended Bethel College, is a heartfelt prolife advocate who combines a passion for the unborn with an acute political and legal mind,” noted a blog post by the editor of LifeNews.com and published on the National Review website.
Beyond these substantive measures, Pawlenty has made many symbolic overtures to the antichoice movement. He declared April 2010 “Abortion Recovery/Awareness Month” in Minnesota. His proclamation noted that “many organizations in Minnesota promote policies that reinforce a culture of life and hope,” and encouraged women who had abortions to seek their help.
He also issued proclamations that darkly observed the day Roe v. Wade was decided. Speaking at an antichoice rally on the 2006 anniversary of the decision, Pawlenty said, “We have a dream today that someday soon this will not be an anniversary of sadness, but an anniversary of justice restored.”
Pawlenty didn’t always hold such radical views on a woman’s right to choose; in 1991 he told a reporter that “the abortion issue wasn’t a big deal to him.” His rightward lurch is unmistakable, however, and can be seen in several other areas of social policy, including gay rights. ThinkProgress has a report documenting Pawlenty’s “evolving homophobia,” including his recent veto of a bill that would have allowed same-sex partners to recover damages in the event of a wrongful death.
These positions will no doubt help Pawlenty among the strong evangelical base in Iowa, the caucus many think he must win in order to have a shot at the nomination. But it's only a matter of time before the former governor will have to be more upfront about his deep opposition to a woman’s right to choose--not least because pro-choice groups don't plan to leave him an option. “As this primary campaign evolves, we will make sure that Americans, especially independent voters who will be a deciding factor in the general election, are turned off not only by Pawlenty’s lackluster campaign style, but his extreme anti-choice positions as well,” said Ted Miller, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America.