PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joe Heck held a news conference in Reno on Oct. 1.

Abortion, an issue long thought more or less settled in Nevada, has re-emerged to enter the U.S. Senate race between Republican Joe Heck and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto.

Heck calls himself a “pro-life candidate,” the kind of label Nevada Republicans have avoided since Nevadans voted for abortion rights in a landslide in 1990.

The temperature of the abortion issue in the Senate campaign was raised when an arm of Planned Parenthood produced a television spot that charged Heck voted to “criminalize abortion for rape victims,” which is not true. The spot cited as its source an article posted on Politico, and that article does not contain any substantiation for the charge. More to the point, the legislation at issue in the Politico article—the “District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” or HR 3803—contained language protecting women who obtain abortions from prosecution.

Heck did cosponsor and vote for the bill, which failed to achieve the required supermajority vote. Another claim in the same spot—that Heck has voted repeatedly to block funding to Planned Parenthood—is accurate.

While Heck calls himself “pro-life,” that may be a tactic to attract abortion opponents without seeming extreme on the issue by embracing the kind of add-ons that abortion opponents have championed to reduce abortion access. In an interview with Heck to clarify his position on abortion, he indicated he is staying just inside the line of opposing abortion and not doing much else to stop it. He opposes a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion and supports parental notification but not parental consent laws. He declined to say whether he supports or opposes judicial bypass measures. In addition, in August, a Heck aide implied Heck does not support overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized abortion rights.

Here is the abortion portion of our interview:

RN&R: “Would you vote for legal abortion?”

HECK: “Well, abortion is legal, per the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, so until the Supreme Court changes their decision, there’s no vote to be had. Supreme Court’s already decided.”

RN&R: “I understand, but Congress has bills all the time that are unconstitutional.”

HECK: “Well, I think that the Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue, and until the Supreme Court changes their mind or reissues their decision that’s ultimately what we will follow.”

RN&R: “What would you describe your abortion position as?”

HECK: “Well, I’m a pro-life candidate, but I support the Hyde amendment. Taxpayer funds should not be used to support abortion with the exception of rape, incest, or life of the mother.”

RN&R: “Would you support a constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion?”

HECK: “No, I don’t believe in changing the constitution on social issues.”

RN&R: “Parental notification?”

HECK: “I support parental notification. I think it’s important a parent advise on what’s going on with their underage child and has an opportunity to interact with that child and help that child reach a conclusion or a decision on what’s in the best interests of the child.”

RN&R: “Parental consent?”

HECK: “I don’t think parental consent is necessary. Parental notification is necessary.”

RN&R: “Judicial bypass?”

HECK: “Judicial bypass in reference to—?”

RN&R: “A teenager who goes to a judge to get permission for an abortion without going to her parents.”

HECK: “I think there needs to be parental notification.”

In August, Cortez Masto put her own abortion spot on the air that stays closer to facts. However, its voice track says Heck “supports overturning Roe vs. Wade, which would allow states to criminalize abortion” over an on-screen slate that reads in part, “Overturn Roe. v. Wade.” That prompted a Heck aide to tell a reporter Heck “has never stated he supports overturning Roe v. Wade, nor has he ever voted to do so.”

Incidentally, no matter what Congress does, the Nevada Legislature could not “criminalize” abortion in the state without a vote of the public.

Her emphasis on the issue suggests she thinks she has Heck on the defensive on an issue where Nevadans have spoken forcefully. What is not known is how important the abortion rights issue is to the voters and whether it will determine how they vote in the Senate race.

One hint may come from the 1990 balloting. In that case, there were two measures on the ballot side-by-side. One was a referendum on whether to retain Nevada’s Roe-style abortion statute. The other was an initiative petition that would outlaw a state income tax. Four thousand more people wanted to be heard on abortion than income tax—316,711 to 312,414.

The vote retained Nevada’s abortion law 63 to 37 percent. It also subjected the law to a voter shield, which is why the legislature cannot change it without another vote of the public.

Cortez Masto has her own handicaps in the race, though they tend to be process issues more than issues that touch people directly. As state attorney general she brought criminal charges against Nevada lieutenant governor Brian Krolicki and an aide on Dec. 4, 2008. The case involved mishandling of funds in a state account, with no money missing. The charges were thrown out of court, and Cortez Masto was accused of trying to clear the way for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s reelection by removing a possible opponent.

In another case, Cortez Masto successfully charged Washoe County School Board members with open meeting violations after they had carefully followed their attorney’s advice, something she had promised—both in a previous case and in the state open meeting handbook—not to do to state officeholders.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, campaigning for Cortez Masto last week, attacked Heck for trivializing the impact of the mortgage crisis on the public. Heck in 2008 called it a “blip on the radar.” Nevada experienced the highest percentage of foreclosures of any state.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...