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Susan Collins’s wrong claim on Planned Parenthood and Supreme Court justices

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the abortion-rights group opposed O'Connor, Kennedy and Souter, but that's incorrect. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“I would note that Planned Parenthood opposed three pro-choice justices just because they were nominated by Republican presidents, David Souter, Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Kennedy. They said the same thing: Women will die.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Oct. 7, 2018

Collins is a prominent Republican supporter of abortion rights. In defending her vote to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, she argued that she believed he would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that made abortion legal across the United States.

After CNN’s Dana Bash noted that Planned Parenthood had once given her an award but that its political arm denounced her siding with “those who disbelieve, disrespect and even mock survivors,” Collins became upset.

“I had never disregarded, disrespected or mocked survivors. That is just plain untrue,” she said. “And I would note that Planned Parenthood opposed three pro-choice justices just because they were nominated by Republican presidents: David Souter, Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Kennedy. They said the same thing: Women will die.”

This called out for an obvious fact check. Is this what Planned Parenthood did during the nomination battles over the three justices who together preserved the essential holding of Roe v. Wade in a 1992 joint opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey?

The Facts

Planned Parenthood’s political arm began scoring Supreme Court nominees only in 2005, meaning tracking which way senators vote and counting it against them in scorecards and endorsements. So Souter, nominated in 1990, O’Connor, in 1981, and Kennedy, in 1987, predate that shift in the organization’s policies.

Even Planned Parenthood did not have records that went back that far. So we had to dig into the newspaper clips. What we found did not back up Collins’s claim.

Anthony M. Kennedy. There is no record of any position taken by Planned Parenthood on Kennedy. He was nominated after two previous nominees named by President Ronald Reagan were defeated or withdrew, and his views on abortion were generally considered to be a mystery. Groups favoring abortion rights expressed doubts about Kennedy, as did antiabortion groups. He was confirmed 97-0, indicating that he had broad support and not much opposition from interest groups. However, one abortion rights group, the National Organization for Women, did denounce him as a “sexist” foe of women’s rights and as objectionable as Robert Bork, Reagan’s original, rejected choice.

Sandra Day O’Connor. After the announcement of the first female justice to be nominated, Planned Parenthood was quick to praise her. The organization commended Reagan for nominating a woman who “from all reports … is a highly respected jurist who has served the citizens of Arizona with distinction,” the UPI reported. O’Connor, by contrast, faced fierce opposition from antiabortion groups. They called Reagan’s nomination a “complete break in faith” with the GOP platform endorsing the appointment of judges who would overturn Roe, citing her voting record on abortion as a state legislator.

There was also this interesting item in The Washington Post on Sept. 29, 1981, about a guest during the O’Connor hearings: “One very real but inconspicuous friend seated with the O’Connor family throughout the Senate confirmation hearings was Jo Norris, head of volunteers in the Phoenix chapter of Planned Parenthood. Norris and Justice O’Connor have been good friends since they got to know each other through their community activities. In fact, the justice’s husband, John O’Connor, has emceed two fund-raisers for the Phoenix chapter of Planned Parenthood, and her sister, Ann Day Alexander, serves on the board of Planned Parenthood in Tucson.”

David Souter: Planned Parenthood did oppose Souter, though it would be a stretch to say it was because he was nominated by a Republican president. The group’s opposition emerged during his confirmation hearings, after he had failed to make clear his position on abortion. Souter had no paper trail on the issue, and the head of Planned Parenthood had been quoted as saying shortly after his nomination: ''We cannot tolerate a nominee not making his position explicit.'' Moreover, it was NOW, not Planned Parenthood, that had a button with an image of a coat hanger, declaring: “Stop Souter or Women Will Die!”

So, what’s going on here? It’s clear that Planned Parenthood did not oppose Kennedy and O’Connor, and it did not automatically oppose Souter.

Annie Clark, communications director for Collins, said that the senator had made two mistakes, both in the interview and in her floor speech announcing her support for Kavanaugh. She also misspoke.

In the interview, she meant to refer more generally to abortion rights groups (such as NOW) rather than Planned Parenthood, Clark said. That would have covered Kennedy and Souter. But not O’Connor.

Instead, Clark said, Collins should have referred to Justice John Paul Stevens, whom NOW opposed as not being sufficiently supportive of Roe v. Wade. (In the end, the fear was misplaced because Stevens concurred in the central finding of Planned Parenthood v. Casey.) But that also meant this section of her floor speech was wrong, especially the part in boldface:

Opponents frequently cite then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to nominate only judges who would overturn Roe. The Republican platform for all presidential campaigns has included this pledge since at least 1980. During this time, Republican presidents have appointed Justices O’Connor, Souter, and Kennedy to the Supreme Court. These are the very three justices — Republican-president-appointed justices — who authored the Casey decision, which reaffirmed Roe. Furthermore, pro-choice groups vigorously opposed each of these justices’ nominations. Incredibly, they even circulated buttons with the slogan “Stop Souter or Women Will Die!” Just two years later, Justice Souter co-authored the Casey opinion, reaffirming a woman’s right to choose. Suffice it to say, prominent advocacy organizations have been wrong.

Note that the floor speech mentioned O’Connor, Souter and Kennedy, and the entire section was framed around justices appointed since the 1980 GOP platform. Stevens was appointed in 1975, by President Gerald R. Ford, so both the O’Connor reference and the reference to the 1980 pledge were wrong.

Collins also uses a broad brush to tag “pro-choice groups,” but she is mainly talking about NOW. As we have shown, Planned Parenthood was not among the abortion rights groups with knee-jerk opposition to these three justices.

The Pinocchio Test

Collins’s statement on CNN was headed toward a Three or Four Pinocchio ruling. But regular readers know that we tend not to award Pinocchios when a politician admits error. We don’t try to play gotcha, and we understand that slip-ups can happen in the heat of the moment during a live interview.

The error in the floor speech is more problematic because that kind of factual mishap is not supposed to happen in a prepared address, particularly one that receives nationwide attention. But again we accept the acknowledgment of the error and urge that it be corrected in the Congressional Record.

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“I would note that Planned Parenthood opposed three pro-choice justices just because they were nominated by Republican presidents, David Souter, Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Kennedy. They said the same thing: Women will die.”
in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union"
Sunday, October 7, 2018