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Michigan Truth Squad: Brian Calley says Bill Schuette once supported abortion

August 2018 update: Bill Schuette wins Republican nod for Michigan governor

Social issues, which have been markedly absent from the Republican gubernatorial race in the 2018 campaign cycle, made a brief appearance recently in one of the latest ads from Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

The ad, titled “Where’s Bill?,” depicts President Trump at his April rally in Michigan showing him searching in vain for Attorney General Bill Schuette, who the President has endorsed in the Republican primary over Calley and two other rivals.

“Where does flip-flopping Bill Schuette stand?” an omniscient voice asks as a photoshopped Schuette pops up on either side behind the podium to tinkling jack-in-the-box music, disappearing with a cartoonish “whoosh” right before the President lays eyes on him.

Related: Truth Squad rating categories

It ticks through several claims: allegations that Schuette trashed Trump to the press, wanted higher taxes and supported cuts to the military. One says Schuette “supported abortion, then he didn’t.”

“The only side he’s on is his own,” the ad concludes.

Recent polling from EPIC MRA found around 55 percent of Michiganders believe women have the right to an abortion. But that changes with a partisan lens: More than 60 percent of Republicans nationwide say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to a report from the Pew Research Center from last July (Pew did not break out results by state).

Among more conservative Republicans — who generally have an outsized influence on heated primary contests — that number climbs to 71 percent nationwide.

So, it’s no surprise both candidates are eager to prove their stance against abortion rights. The Schuette campaign hit back after the ad with a press release.   

“Bill Schuette has NEVER supported abortion,” the release reads, reciting a list of Right to Life of Michigan endorsements of the candidate. Schuette campaign spokesman John Sellek later emailed Truth Squad calling the Calley ad “a lie.”

When asked about the claim, Calley spokesman Mike Schrimpf told Truth Squad the evidence supporting Schuette’s past support for abortion was “pretty overwhelming.” We find Calley’s claim Half Accurate.

The claim

“Bill Schuette supported abortion. Then he didn’t.”

The facts

Bill Schuette has been endorsed by Right to Life of Michigan multiple times, he’s sued to shut down abortion clinics as Attorney General and his campaign website says he is “a strong defender for the rights of the unborn.”

But Schuette has been involved in political campaigns for more than three decades. And in his early races, his views on abortion rights were far more nuanced.

Schuette’s first bid for political office came in 1984, when he ran for U.S. Representative in Michigan’s 10th district. He was elected to three terms in the chamber before unsuccessfully running to unseat then two-term incumbent Democrat Carl Levin in the U.S. Senate in 1990.

The Calley camp points to several quotes on abortion attributed to Schuette from his first run for Congress.

A 1990 Detroit News article referenced a 1984 interview Schuette gave to the newspaper where he was quoted as saying the decision to abort is “best made between the parties involved and their medical and religious advisers,’ although he added he personally opposed abortions and public spending for them.”

A 1984 article in the Detroit Free Press is virtually identical: “Schuette says he is personally opposed to abortion and would vote against the use of tax dollars for such operations, but ‘I think it should be an individual decision.’”

Schuette’s hometown paper, the Midland Daily News, wrote in October 1984 he is “personally against abortion, but feels it should be a decision made by the women in consultation with doctors, family and religious counselors.”

Schuette’s recurring language in those early days — that he personally opposed abortion, but the decision should be left to individuals — is “consistent with him being in favor of abortion rights, but it’s not necessarily fair to say he’s in favor of abortion itself,” said Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at MSU.

And there’s the dilemma facing Truth Squad: If you personally oppose abortion but defer to a woman’s right to choose, are you an abortion supporter? By Schuette’s own remarks, he was against abortion. But in supporting a woman’s right to choose, he was presumably in favor of laws that allowed abortion for those women who chose it.  

Chris Gast, director of communications for Right to Life of Michigan, told Truth Squad the group did not endorse Schuette in any of his congressional races in 1984, 1986 or 1988 despite the fact that “he had a pro-life voting record” in Congress.

Gast said in the 1984 race, his group didn’t endorse Schuette because he was facing an incumbent opponent who opposed abortion rights, which means they automatically get the endorsement. Gast said he could not speak to why his group didn’t endorse Schuette in 1986 or 1988. National Right to Life told Truth Squad he had a 100 percent anti-abortion voting record for all three U.S. House terms.

“We cannot speak for RTL,” Schuette spokesman John Sellek wrote Truth Squad in an email. “Bill Schuette has always been pro-life and his record is described as 100 percent pro-life by Right to Life of Michigan — including in Congress.”

A report by CQ Researcher, a nonpartisan periodical covering political issues, called Schuette an “abortion-rights supporter” as late as January 1990. Grossmann said his department at MSU uses CQ Researcher as a valid source, but he would consider it a “characterization” more than an “independent verification” of Schuette’s position back then.

By the time Schuette ran for the U.S. Senate later that year, he was on record as an “anti-abortion” candidate and received a $1,000 donation from the National Right to Life PAC, according to a Detroit Free Press account. Schuette told reporters that year his 1984 remarks had been “taken out of context” and that he was referring only to cases of rape, incest and life-threatening danger to the woman, according to another Detroit Free Press article from July 1990.

Half Accurate
Brian Calley
Bill Schuette “supported abortion” claim

This is a messy call, which arguably comes down to a semantic distinction better left to philosophers or linguists, or perhaps that guy at the end of the bar.

As Grossmann and both abortion rights and anti-abortion rights groups have pointed out, personally opposing abortion but believing abortion should be “an individual decision,” as Schuette said in the mid 1980s, would be considered a stance favoring abortion rights.

It’s the basis of Calley’s accusation in the ad.

“Being pro-choice necessarily means you support abortion,” Calley spokesman Schrimpf said. “You may not like abortion and you may want them to occur infrequently but that doesn’t mean you don’t support abortion. You certainly support a woman’s ability to have an abortion.”

Both Republican and Democratic primary voters lean further right and left than their general election counterparts. The Calley ad is framed to reach those conservative voters (71 percent of whom believe abortion should be illegal), who are more likely to think of abortion politics this way: If one doesn’t support a legal ban on abortion, one supports abortion itself.

Under that lens, there’s merit to Calley’s claim. Schuette told three different newspapers in 1984 he believed the decision to have an abortion was “best made between the parties involved.” That hardly sounds like a man quoted out of context.

Now, does that mean Republican voters should worry that Bill Schuette will be equivocal on the subject as governor? Not likely; that would be at odds with his anti-abortion voting history over more than 30 years, a significant fact that Calley’s ad is asking primary voters to overlook.

Calley’s ad would have been on far firmer ground declaring “Bill Schuette supported abortion rights” instead of saying he “supported abortion,” which is why Truth Squad cannot find the ad accurate. There is no getting around the conclusion that Schuette’s 1984 remarks constituted support, of a kind, for keeping abortion legal. But that does not mean that Schuette personally supported abortion. On that point, at least, the Attorney General has been consistent.  

We find the Calley ad statement Half Accurate.

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