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Why Is Abortion An Issue In County Executive Race? Women Voters?

Parth Shah/St. Louis Public Radio

Let’s not mince any words: If he's elected later this year, neither St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley nor Councilman Steve Stenger will have any power to alter Missouri’s abortion policies. 

The county executive essentially has no authority to enact or repeal restrictions on abortion – the state does. And it’s highly unlikely that Stenger's or Dooley’s power of persuasion will change the course of a Missouri legislature overwhelmingly opposed to abortion rights.

But those realities haven't stopped Dooley or Stenger from dredging up abortion in the increasingly nasty Democratic contest for county executive. Both candidates are trumpeting their endorsements from Planned Parenthood, while Dooley’s ads have labeled Stenger of being “conservative” and “pro-life.”

In fact, Dooley’s ad released on Tuesday repeats the allegation that Stenger promoted his anti-abortion rights credentials during a 2008 county council contest. Stenger has said he doesn’t recall the mailers, adding that any such material was sent out without his authorization.

The fight over the issue almost certainly has more to do with politics than practicality. Both candidates are trying to woo Democratic female voters in the Aug. 5 primary, and they may believe that talking about their stands on abortion rights could make them more appealing to these voters. (And both may be looking ahead, trying to draw a contrast between themselves and potential Republican nominee Rick Stream, who has voted for abortion restrictions in the Missouri House.)

During an interview last week, Dooley conceded that he had never dealt with abortion policy once during his decade-long tenure as county executive. But he said he brought up the issue to bring up questions about Stenger’s credibility.

“Let me be clear about this: I’m not concerned about a person being pro-life or pro-choice. I’m pro-choice. But how do you change your position?” Dooley said. “Whatever he thinks people want to hear, that’s what he’s going to say. That’s not who I am. I’m always the same person.”

For his part, Stenger said last week that “my positions on a woman’s right to choose and a woman’s right to choose her own health-care decisions (are) ... acceptable for Planned Parenthood.”  When asked if the emphasis on abortion rights was a non sequitur given the county executive’s lack of power over the issue, Stenger said: “I’m very proud to stand with women. And I’m very proud of my stands over the years on women’s issues.”

Stenger responded to Dooley's contentions after last week's county council meeting.

“I was raised as a Catholic,” said Stenger, who added he has never dealt with abortion policy during his tenure on the council. “At some point, I had beliefs that were contrary to the beliefs that I now hold. And through my public life, I came to know people and stories that truly changed my mind."

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Attorney General Chris Koster opposed abortion rights until he switched political parties in August 2007.

It’s not uncommon for prominent Democratic officials in Missouri to change their positions on abortion rights. 

For instance, former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-St. Louis, was against abortion rights until he ran for president in 1988. And at this point seven years ago, Attorney General Chris Koster – the likely Democratic nominee for governor in two years – opposed abortion rights. He abandoned that stance when he left the Republican Party on Aug. 1, 2007.

When asked if there was any difference between what Koster and Stenger did, Dooley responded: “Well, then say it. Don’t act like you don’t know. Just say it. If you change your position, tell me why."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.