Last April, as former fighter pilot Amy McGrath was focused on a tough Democratic primary race for Congress against Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, her interview on a local radio station turned to the topic of abortion.
“You don’t think there should be any limitations at all on abortion?” asked host Larry Glover on 590 WVLK.
“I don’t think government should be involved in making a decision on a woman’s body,” McGrath said.
“So you think a woman on the way to the hospital to give birth could decide to abort it instead?” Glover said.
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“I don’t think the government should be involved in a woman’s right to choose what is happening to her body,” McGrath said.
Now, as U.S. Rep. Andy Barr faces a tough reelection fight against McGrath, the exchange has become fodder for Republicans trying to make the case that McGrath’s “extreme liberal views” on abortion are out of step with a district that President Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2016.
“Amy McGrath said herself that she is further left than anyone in Kentucky, and that she favors abortion-on-demand, at any time for any reason, even until the moment of birth,” said Jodi Whitaker, Barr’s spokeswoman, referencing the radio interview.
Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican Party, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Barr campaign all highlighted an article in The Anderson News in which Barr said McGrath supported abortion through the ninth month.
It’s a statement he’s uttered many times on the campaign trail.
“I’m pro-life, my opponent is pro-abortion to the ninth month,” Barr, R-Lexington, said to guffaws from the crowd as he opened his Lexington campaign headquarters earlier this summer.
McGrath has consistently said she’s pro-choice, saying it’s a personal liberty issue and that the government shouldn’t make a decision about what a woman does with her body. McGrath has pointed out that she’s Catholic (the Catholic Church opposes all forms of abortion) and said her personal feelings about abortion don’t change her view that the government shouldn’t be involved.
“I am Catholic and am acutely aware of this issue throughout my entire life,” McGrath said in a statement. “There are ample restrictions currently placed on abortions, but they never seem to be enough for extremists like Barr. Our focus ought to remain on preserving our constitutional rights, the health and well-being of the mother, and the rights of women to make their own choices without interference from government.”
When pushed on whether McGrath supports any limits on abortion, McGrath campaign manager Mark Nickolas said McGrath respects current law but would like to prevent more restrictions.
“There are restrictions in the current law,” Nickolas said. “And Amy respects that current law.”
Those restrictions are often made at the state level. The Kentucky legislature has passed several abortion restrictions in recent years, including a restriction on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy that passed in 2017. It has not been challenged in court, unlike some of the other measures the Kentucky legislature has passed.
Nickolas declined to say whether McGrath supports the intention of those laws.
Nickolas compared the abortion issue to that of gun rights. Just as McGrath doesn’t think the government should take guns away from people, she doesn’t think the government should take away a woman’s right to get an abortion, he said.
“Andy Barr cherry picks when he wants government involved in the issues,” Nickolas said.
Since before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in all states with their 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, conservatives have made abortion rights an issue in political campaigns. Now, with the retirement of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, conservatives believe they have a chance to overturn the ruling, once again throwing abortion rights into the spotlight.
Barr voted for a bill that would restrict abortion after 20 weeks except in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2017, but failed to get a vote in the Senate.
While McGrath has been clear that she’s pro-choice, she’s been reluctant to embrace abortion-rights groups that often get involved in competitive political campaigns. In November, she said in an interview that she aligns with “everything EMILY’s List aligns with” but did not seek the group’s endorsement.
A 2014 Pew Research study found that 36 percent of Kentuckians believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 57 percent believed it should be illegal in all or most cases. That makes it a difficult issue for McGrath to navigate as she tries to win over rural voters in Central Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District without alienating the more liberal members of her base.
Barr’s emphasis on the issue is his latest attempt to highlight McGrath’s more progressive views. He’s aired several attack ads labeling McGrath too liberal for the district.
“When you can’t run on your record all you can do is take comments out of context and attack, attack, attack,” Nickolas said in response to the ads.