Democratic U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley on Tuesday accused U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, her GOP Senate opponent, of joining Republicans in Congress who are attempting to limit women's access to birth control and health care that can save lives by detecting cancer early.
"We simply cannot go back to the '50s," said Berkley, a major proponent of Planned Parenthood, a target of the GOP because it offers abortions with a range of health care for low-income women.
Republicans including Heller who oppose abortion on religious or moral grounds have frequently voted against federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Heller's campaign responded to the attack by providing a list of programs he has supported to improve access to mammograms, cancer care for women, and research and treatment. His campaign accused Berkley of trying to "misinform voters and distort Dean Heller's record" to score political points.
"This is just another over-the-top false accusation by the seven-term congresswoman," Heller campaign spokeswoman Chandler Smith said. "Senator Heller simply does not support the use of taxpayer funding for abortions."
The battle between Berkley and Heller on the emotional election year issue comes as Democrats look for ways to attract female voters, especially moderates and swing independents who have voted for Republicans before but might be upset by the GOP's hard-line stance.
"Democrats are working hard to win this issue," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with The Cook Political Report. "It's helped them in the past with women voters, and they hope it will help them again, especially with independent women voters."
Ted Jelen, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that he doesn't think many people will be swayed, but that the birth control debate could increase voter turnout and energize women to get involved.
"Issues like this are so emotional that people aren't going to change their minds," Jelen said. "This is a good way for both sides to mobilize the base."
The issue took on new life when President Barack Obama mandated that all employers who provide health insurance, including religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities, include birth control at no cost.
When objections mounted, the president offered a compromise that the insurance companies, and not the religious-affiliated groups themselves, cover the costs.
Many questions remain, including how the compromise resolves matters for self-insured institutions. Republicans may try to push the matter further with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., sponsoring legislation to allow any employer to refuse to cover any health benefit, not just birth control or abortion, on moral grounds.
Heller's campaign said he had not yet taken a position on the Blunt legislation, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would allow to be voted on. That would give Democrats such as Berkley more ammunition against their Senate opponents to keep the issue alive.
"Instead of focusing on jobs, Washington Republicans like Dean Heller are focusing on pursuing a radical social agenda that would set women's health services back decades," Berkley said, calling Heller "anti-woman."
Berkley's charge came during a news conference she held at Hope Cancer Care of Nevada, a treatment center.
Appearing with her were Gabby Amato, a volunteer for Planned Parenthood, and a nurse, Adam Mathis, who works at the center in southwest Las Vegas.
Amato said her mother was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in 2010 and was successfully treated. Although her mother had her own insurance and didn't need Planned Parenthood's help, Amato said she still was glad to know the clinics are there to help women.
"I know that organizations like Planned Parenthood will always be around to help me," said Amato, who is out of work and on her parents' health care plan.
Mathis said he didn't know how many cancer center patients are referred for treatment by Planned Parenthood, but he promoted early cancer detection.
Planned Parenthood provides about 750,000 examinations a year, although it doesn't conduct mammograms itself.
Berkley insisted the debate has nothing to do with abortion and everything to do with providing women access to health care, including through Obama's GOP-opposed reforms.
Heller, like most Republicans, wants to repeal Obama's health insurance law, objecting to a mandate that Americans buy insurance.
On women's health care, Heller's campaign said he has been an advocate for a mobile mammography program. In October, he sent a letter to colleagues asking them to join him to support the Mobile Mammography Promotion Act to ensure access to breast cancer screening in underserved areas.
In the House, Heller was a member of the House Cancer Care Working Group, which developed policies to improve oncology care.
He also voted for the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program Reauthorization Act , signed into law in April 2007. The legislation authorized $1.3 billion over five years, helping women to have more access to lifesaving care, according to his campaign.
In 2008, Heller co-sponsored the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act to encourage greater research into factors contributing to breast cancer. It became law.
Contact reporter Laura Myers at 702-387-2919 or firstname.lastname@example.org.