BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)--Abortion is often a central issue in races for statewide office in the United States. This year's race for the governor of Massachusetts, however, provides a rare example of what can happen when all of the leading candidates are aggressively positioning themselves as pro-choice and more pro-choice.
With polls showing that 70 percent of the Massachusetts electorate is firmly pro-choice, none of the major candidates is positioning themselves as anti-abortion. Abortion-rights proponents thus find themselves in an unusual position to move the debate decisively, perhaps even permanently: At least for this campaign season, the question will not be whether one is pro-choice, but how much and in what ways?
In one corner is Mitt Romney, a Massachusetts venture capitalist millionaire, fresh from his successful stint as honcho of the Salt Lake Olympics. Romney is running as a Republican who supports the right to abortion, but some are questioning his commitment to that stance.
Part of the controversy, according to the Boston Globe, is a letter Romney wrote last summer to The Salt Lake Tribune, stating: "I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice." (Salt Lake City is, of course, the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is officially anti-abortion.)
When Romney ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994 against then-incumbent Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, he was also tagged for flip-flopping on the issue. Romney said he supported abortion rights, but had accepted the endorsement of Massachusetts Citizens For Life and opposed federal abortion funding.
Romney recently explained to reporters "I'll say the same thing that I've said since 1994 and probably before. That is, on a personal basis, I do not favor abortion. However, as governor of the Commonwealth, I will protect the right of a woman to choose under the laws of the country and the laws of the Commonwealth."
Acting Gov. Jane Swift, a pro-choice Republican, has also jumped into the fray, asserting that Mitt Romney is solidly pro-choice. "He was very clear to me [in a private meeting] that he was pro-choice," she told the Boston Herald. Swift, under pressure from GOP leaders who thought her poll numbers too low to guarantee electoral success, dropped out of the gubernatorial race before it even started, and endorsed Romney.
In the other corner, the two leading democrats, State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, are both regarded as strongly pro-choice. They are tied in the polls so far and are well ahead of three other party hopefuls. The Democratic primary is in September.
As the candidates argue over who is more supportive of a woman's right to choose, questions about O'Brien have also been raised.
O'Brien has argued that women should have reservations about Romney, yet as a state representative, she had an anti-abortion voting record. In 1986, for example, O'Brien voted for a bill that would have banned abortions except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the woman. "As a Catholic and a public official," she told the Boston Globe, "I had to balance some differing thoughts."
She says, however, that conversations with women led her to change her views by 1990. "I came to believe," O'Brien concluded, "that the health of a woman really included the woman's right to control her own body."
Since then, O'Brien is regarded as having a solid pro-choice voting record, including support for bills that outlawed clinic blockades in the state, created buffer zones around clinics and created funding for abortion counseling for victims of rape and incest.
Reich Would Expand Abortion Access
For his part, Robert Reich declared, "I am pro-choice. I am committed to safeguarding and improving women's reproductive-health services in Massachusetts, including the unrestricted right to safe abortions." He even took the nearly unheard of step of promising to "expand" abortion services.
Reich, with no legislative record and no previous electoral campaigns, denounced the "the Massachusetts anti-choice lobby" and said he would forge "a strong coalition of leaders collaborating to ensure that reproductive rights are secure for the women of Massachusetts," and to implement and enforce legislation designed to protect clinics.
Reich also says he would address the problem of access to abortion services. "More than half of the 23 hospitals and clinics providing accessible full-service reproductive health-care services," he observes, "are located in the Boston area." This means that the majority of communities in Massachusetts do not have ready access to abortion providers, according to Reich.
The other three Democratic candidates, although lagging in the polls, are also strongly pro-choice. If Reich or O'Brien stumble, or if state Senate President Tom Birmingham, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Steve Grossman or former state Sen. Warren Tolman manage to rise in the polls, abortion-related issues will likely continue to play a dynamic role as the candidates try to define themselves to an overwhelmingly pro-choice electorate.
In some liberal states such as New York, Connecticut and California, it's not unusual for the major-party candidates to be more or less pro-choice. And in conservative states such as Alabama, Mississippi or Kansas, the anti-abortion credentials of the major-party candidates are often a matter of degree.
What sets Massachusetts apart this year is that all of the candidates are struggling to convincingly define themselves--not just as pro-choice, but as pro-choice leaders who are able to articulate a vision of what it will take for reproductive-health services to be widely and appropriately available, adequately funded and sustainable into the future.
Frederick Clarkson has reported on politics and religion for 20 years. He is the author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy" (Common Courage Press). As always, Clarkson did his best to be fair, however, his readers should be aware he is an elected delegate to the Massachusetts Democratic State Convention, where he is committed to support Robert Reich.
For more information:
Massachusetts Policy and Politics Online
(includes links to all of the gubernatorial candidates,
see "issue resources"):
Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts:
Massachusetts Chapter National Organization for Women: