Life and choice

By Neal McNamara

Bernero so-so on abortion rights — as Alma Wheeler Smith is pointing out

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alma Wheeler Smith has fired a shot at Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero over abortion, calling herself the only “solidly prochoice” Democrat in the race.

“I am the only pro-choice Democrat — the only solidly pro-choice Democrat,” Smith, a state representative from Washtenaw County, said last week on the “City Pulse on the Air” radio show on Impact 89 FM. (A podcast is available at

Smith cited voting records kept by Planned Parenthood Affiliates of Michigan, saying that she usually votes pro-choice 100 percent of the time, but dipped down below that at one point. Questioned about Bernero’s record as a state legislator, she said that Bernero never topped 50 percent in pro-choice voting.

A third likely Democratic candidate, state House Speaker Andy Dillon, is considered pro-life.

Jamaine Dickens, a spokesman with Bernero’s gubernatorial campaign, did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the voting records kept by Planned Parenthood, Smith is correct. During the 2001-‘02 legislative session, during which Bernero was a state representative, he received a score of 43 percent — meaning that he voted with Planned Parenthood 43 percent of the time. Of 15 votes on reproductive issues that year as highlighted by Planned Parenthood, Bernero missed one vote.

During the 2003-‘04 legislative session, when Bernero was a state senator, he essentially received a score of 50 percent. For the Senate votes that year, Planned Parenthood tallied each legislator’s votes on issues Planned Parenthood supported and opposed — in that year, Bernero voted six times with Planned Parenthood, six times against, and was absent for two votes. There were 14 votes tallied by Planned Parenthood that year.

Sarah Scranton, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, the political arm of the organization, said that Smith has always been a supporter. Of Bernero, she said, “He seems to be with us sometimes, but not all of the time.”

In 2001-‘02, Bernero voted for adding language to the criminal code that would add penalties to causing the death of a fetus or embryo. He also voted for the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, which would require medical attention for any fetus that survived an abortion procedure.

In the 2005-‘06 and the 2007-‘08 sessions, Smith voted 100 percent with Planned Parenthood. As a senator during the 2001-‘02 session, Smith received a 76 percent rating, and, unlike Bernero, voted against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act.

Smith said Tuesday that she believes the issue of choice is important in this election because it will attract independents and moderate Republicans to the Democratic side.

“In what appears to be a tough a election this November, we certainly need a defining issue for the party,” Smith said. “This is one of them.”

Scranton said Planned Parenthood usually opposes issues like the Born Alive Infant Protection Act because they may be attempting to give a fetus personhood — a slippery slope to disallowing abortion. Not all issues opposed by Planned Parenthood are as black and white as pro-life or pro-choice, she added.

Also in 2001-‘02, Bernero voted against a measure that would have cut funding given to the state by the federal government to fund groups like Planned Parenthood that provide family planning services. The De-fund Planned Parenthood Act did become law, but Scranton said that Gov. Jennifer Granholm has aided in softening its blow. He also voted against a bill that would have created a special “choose life” license plate, the proceeds of which would have funded agencies that provide services for mothers of unplanned pregnancies.

In the Senate, Bernero voted for the Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act, which would provide grants to colleges and universities to create offices that would encourage pregnant women to keep their baby while completing college. Bernero also voted for Senate Bill 943, which would revise the school sex education instruction to emphasize the abstinence education. However, Bernero voted against the Legal Birth Definition Act, which was an attempt at a partial birth abortion ban — the law went into effect in 2005, but was ruled unconstitutional after a challenge by Planned Parenthood.

Larry Galmish, director of the Right to Life Michigan PAC, said that the group has in the past endorsed Dillon and has never endorsed Smith. Galmish was not familiar with Bernero’s record, but he said the group has not endorsed him in the past. The PAC will accept applications for endorsement by each candidate after the official filing date in May.

He said the issue of choice should be important in the governor’s race, saying that he has seen national polls that indicate more Americans are becoming pro-life.

“The information is getting out there, especially when people see the actual ultrasounds,” Galmish said of abortion. “It’s something that’s living and moving. It is not just a mass of nothing.”

Scranton, too, said that Planned Parenthood waits until after the filing deadline to accept applications for endorsements. Smith said she would apply for the endorsement. So far, Scranton said, none of the Republican candidates has a pro-choice record, and possible independent candidate Joe Schwarz, a former legislator and congressman from Battle Creek, has a mixed record on choice.

“At this point we’re just hoping there will be a field of candidates that will support choice and women’s health, and we would like to see it on both sides, not just in the Democratic primary,” she said.