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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson September 13, 2016

Planned Parenthood Votes says Joe Heck 'voted to criminalize abortion for rape victims'

An affiliate of Planned Parenthood has released an ad targeting Rep. Joe Heck, the Republican nominee in the neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race in Nevada.

Accompanying a series of black-and-white images of women, a narrator says, "It’s terrible, but it’s true. Joe Heck voted eight times to defund Planned Parenthood and would criminalize abortion for rape victims, because he’s a Washington politician before he’s a Nevada physician. And Planned Parenthood wants you to know that Joe Heck is dangerous to your health."

Heck is running against Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto in the open-seat race to succeed retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

We took a closer look at the part about criminalizing abortion, which was punctuated with text on the screen saying, "Joe Heck voted to criminalize abortion for rape victims." (We've already looked at Heck's record on voting to defund Planned Parenthood.)

The idea of criminally punishing women for having an abortion has already come up in the 2016 campaign, as we’ve noted before -- and when it did, Republicans quickly backed off it. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on March 30, 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said women should be punished for having an abortion, but he quickly backtracked after an outcry, releasing a statement on his campaign website later that day.

We found that there’s some truth behind the ad’s charge, but the Planned Parenthood Votes ad overplays its hand.

In small type on screen, the ad cites media coverage of a 2012 bill that Heck co-sponsored and voted for  -- the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. (Planned Parenthood Votes confirmed in interviews that this was the legislation the ad was based on.)

On July 31, 2012, the bill secured 220 yea votes and 154 nay votes in the Republican-controlled House. While that was a majority of the chamber, it did not pass because it did not reach the two-thirds minimum required for that type of vote.

According to the bill summary, the measure would have amended the federal criminal code to "prohibit any person from performing or attempting to perform an abortion" after 20 weeks within the District of Columbia "except in conformity with this act's requirements."

The exceptions, according to the bill text, would be risk of "the death of the pregnant woman; or ... the substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, not including psychological or emotional conditions, of the pregnant woman."

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In other words, pregnancy through rape would not qualify for an exception under the bill. And the possible penalty could include a fine and up to two years in prison.

But a key question is: A penalty for who?

The answer is that the criminal risk would fall upon the doctor. In fact, the legislation includes language that specifically protects the woman getting the abortion from being prosecuted: "A woman upon whom an abortion in violation of (this legislation) is performed or attempted may not be prosecuted under, or for a conspiracy to violate" the measure.

However, the Planned Parenthood ad fuzzes the difference between prosecuting the abortion provider and prosecuting the woman receiving the abortion. The use of "for" in the sentence "Joe Heck voted to criminalize abortion for rape victims" could be interpreted to mean that rape victims would bear the legal consequences, even though the law makes clear that they would not.

In fact, the ad visually reinforces the notion that women would be left open to criminal penalties by featuring a succession of young women, none of whom wear the tools of the medical profession, such as a lab coat or a stethoscope.

Planned Parenthood Votes said that even without criminal penalties for women, the bill would have had severe consequences for them, effectively making it impossible for rape victims to receive an abortion after 20 weeks.

"Joe Heck voted to criminalize abortion," said Erica Sackin, communications director for Planned Parenthood Votes. "Whether the law sends women to jail or doctors to jail, the end result is the same: Women would have been left with nowhere to turn to for safe, legal abortion."

Our ruling

The Planned Parenthood Votes ad said that "Joe Heck voted to criminalize abortion for rape victims."

The group has a point that a bill Heck voted for and co-sponsored would have criminalized medical professionals from performing abortions after 20 weeks for rape victims who are not at risk of death or significant physical health complications due to pregnancy, at least in Washington, D.C. This would have eliminated all legal abortions for women in that category.

However, the ad blurs the issue of whether medical professionals or the women themselves would be at risk of prosecution. Only medical professionals would face legal consequences under the bill, but the ad’s imagery implies otherwise, using only women as visuals. On balance, we rate the ad Half True.

Our Sources

Planned Parenthood Votes, ad against Joe Heck, Sept. 7, 2016

District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, roll call vote, July 31, 2012, "H.R.3803 - District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" (main index page), accessed Sept. 13, 2016

Politico, "D.C. abortion bill falls short in House," July 31, 2012

PolitiFact, "Trying to pin down what Donald Trump thinks about abortion, the minimum wage, taxes, and U.S. debt," May 11, 2016

Email interview with Zach Hudson, spokesman for Catherine Cortez Masto, Sept. 12, 2016

Email interview with Brian Baluta, spokesman for Joe Heck, Sept. 12, 2016.

Interview with Erica Sackin, communications director for Planned Parenthood Votes, Sept. 13, 2016

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Planned Parenthood Votes says Joe Heck 'voted to criminalize abortion for rape victims'

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