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Candidates for Oregon governor differ on abortion

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Protesters gather on the Ashland Plaza June 25 to make their voices heard on the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. [Morgan Rothborne/Mail Tribune]
Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson [Jaime Valdez/Pamplin Media Group via AP]
Republican nominee Christine Drazan [Jaime Valdez/Pamplin Media Group via AP]
Democratic nominee Tina Kotek [Jaime Valdez/Pamplin Media Group via AP]

Voters have a choice this November between abortion rights-backers Betsy Johnson and Tina Kotek for Oregon governor, or anti-abortion candidate Christine Drazan.

The long-simmering topic of abortion erupted into a major political issue in June when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. The issue has been thrown back to the states to decide, with about half expected to preserve abortion access and half expected to ban or severely restrict abortion.

Oregon is among the strongest abortion-rights states in the nation. Abortion remains legal with no gestational limits or waiting periods. Medication that induces an abortion in early pregnancy is available by mail after an in-person or telemedicine visit, according to the Oregon Department of Justice.

Abortion is covered by the Oregon Health Plan. This year, the Oregon Legislature created a $15 million Reproductive Health Equity Fund to help cover abortion provider expenses, plus patient costs such as travel and lodging for people who live in Oregon and other states. The spending to help with patient expenses is augmented with private donations.

Betsy Johnson, unaffiliated

Johnson, a nonaffiliated candidate, said she was disappointed in the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. A former board member for Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette, she said she doesn’t support any restrictions on abortion and does support abortion coverage through the government-funded Oregon Health Plan.

“This is a medical decision between a woman and her physician and her family and whoever else she chooses to include in that decision tree,” Johnson said.

Her main difference with Kotek, the Democratic candidate for governor, is that Johnson doesn’t support using any of the $15 million Reproductive Health Equity Fund money to help out-of-state patients access abortion in Oregon. Johnson said aid for them should come from donations.

“Planned Parenthood has plenty of contributions that could help provide access for those women,” Johnson said. “But it shouldn’t be Oregon tax money.”

A summer survey by the nonpartisan Oregon Values and Beliefs Center found 72% of Oregonians think abortion should be legal in most or all cases. That compares with about 62% of all Americans.

With a majority of Oregonians favoring abortion rights, Johnson and Kotek have hammered Drazan, an anti-abortion Republican, in their political ads and campaign speeches.

Johnson is portraying herself as a moderate, saying Kotek is too far to the left and Drazan is too far to the right. Some political observers think Johnson and Kotek could split the pro-abortion rights vote and help Drazan win.

Johnson, a former Democrat, chafes at the notion she is a spoiler in the gubernatorial race.

“I would say that Tina is the spoiler. Tina is spoiling Oregon. Her radical views helped me make the decision to leave the Democrats. So I reject the notion that I am a spoiler in this,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Drazan would veto legislation to further protect abortion rights in Oregon, and Drazan’s extreme views aren’t shared by most Oregonians.

“She’s threatened to veto pro-choice legislation. I think that’s a very, very serious statement,” Johnson said. “Oregon is pro-choice. I am pro-choice."

Christine Drazan, Republican

Drazan, who is endorsed by Oregon Right to Life, declined requests to be interviewed for this article. Her campaign staff provided past interviews with Oregon Public Broadcasting and a Portland television station on the topic of abortion.

Drazan told the television station she is pro-life and her stance is a faith-based decision. Although the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, Drazan noted Oregon law protects abortion. As governor, she said, she would follow Oregon law regardless of her personal opinions.

When asked if she would have vetoed a 2017 Oregon bill that expanded access to abortion, Drazan told OPB, “I would have vetoed legislation which would put Oregon further outside the mainstream on abortion policies, including taxpayer funding for abortion and abortion on demand up until the moment of birth.”

About 1% of abortions in America are performed after five months, usually because of fetal abnormalities or because the pregnancy poses dangers to the woman’s health or life, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights research group.

When asked whether she would support legislation banning abortion in Oregon, Drazan told OPB, “I will not comment on legislation that has not reached my desk nor even been drafted yet, but I support common-sense regulations on abortion, including protecting life in the third trimester.”

As governor, Drazan could block progress and roll back access to abortion at the executive, legislative and judicial level, the Pro-Choice Oregon political action committee said.

As the executive of Oregon’s government, Drazan could appoint anti-abortion leaders to state agencies. She could veto bills and budgets from the Oregon Legislature that expand access to abortion, and she could appoint judges who could then rise to higher and higher courts and make anti-abortion decisions, Pro-Choice Oregon said.

Kotek, the Democratic candidate, has been endorsed by a range of abortion rights groups, including Pro-Choice Oregon, Planned Parenthood PAC of Oregon and EMILY’s List, a group supporting pro-abortion rights Democratic women candidates.

Kotek said the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade ends national protections that stood for five decades.

“We have to make sure that people can have access to health care — and the Supreme Court just took people’s rights away in one fell swoop,” she said.

Tina Kotek, Democrat

Kotek said she doesn’t support government restrictions on abortion.

“These are choices and decisions that a person needs to make in consultation with people they trust. This is about keeping government out of health care decisions,” she said.

Kotek said Drazan previously backed a bill that, if it had passed, would have punished doctors for performing safe and legal abortions. She said Drazan openly celebrated when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“I think she has views that are out of step with Oregonians,” Kotek said of Drazan. “And as governor, she could do a lot of damage, even without changing the law. And so when she says she can’t do anything, that is not true. She could do a lot as governor to make it very difficult for women to access abortion.”

Kotek said she doesn’t believe Johnson is a strong champion of abortion rights. Kotek said Johnson picked an anti-abortion Republican to lead her “Republicans for Betsy” campaign.

“This is not a time to have a governor who’s lukewarm on supporting access to health care. I am a champion on access to health care, including reproductive health care,” Kotek said.

On the issue of whether Oregon should help cover costs for out-of-state people to access abortion, Kotek said she thinks Oregon should help its own residents plus people who live in states where abortion has become illegal or severely restricted.

“I support not only helping Oregonians, but other people who travel here for reproductive health care because that’s, I think, the role right now for Oregon — to be the place where people can get access to health care,” Kotek said.

She said nonprofit organizations are helping out-of-state people as well, and aid isn’t just coming from a portion of the $15 million the Oregon Legislature allocated this year.

Kotek said Eastern Oregonians will have to travel farther for abortion because of an Idaho abortion ban, and some will need help with added expenses. Many previously traveled to the Boise area for reproductive health care.

An Idaho law allows abortion only to save a pregnant person’s life or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest that was reported to a law enforcement agency or child protective services. A copy of the report has to be provided to the doctor performing the abortion. Doctors who perform abortions outside those parameters face two- to five-year prison sentences.

The Idaho law also limits the ability of state employees to talk about abortion or provide information about how to prevent conception.

The University of Idaho, which receives state funding, sent a memo to its employees in September warning them they could be prosecuted, lose their jobs and be permanently banned from state employment for promoting or referring someone for an abortion. Professors who appear to support abortion rights rather than being neutral in classroom discussions risk prosecution. University employees can provide condoms to help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, but not for birth control.

“We are living in a very unique time in our country,” Kotek said. “There are young people today who have only known Roe v. Wade. They’ve only known a country that protected access to abortion. Everyone across the board is upset by what the Supreme Court has done, and it has motivated a lot of Oregonians to be very active in this election year. They understand what’s at stake.”

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a newsroom collaboration for the governor’s race, with six newsrooms each tackling where Republican Christine Drazan, nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson and Democrat Tina Kotek stand on a key topic. The Mail Tribune wrote about abortion, the Albany Herald-Democrat wrote about wildfires and drought; Ashland News covered health care, including mental health; the Oregon Capital Chronicle covered housing, the Salem Reporter covered education and Yachats News wrote about the economy and cost of living.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Votes on abortion

HB 3391 (2017 regular session) passed

Established the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which expands coverage for some people to receive access to reproductive health services, including abortion.

  • Drazan — (not elected yet)
  • Johnson — Yes
  • Kotek — Yes

Source: Alexis Weisend from the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon