BOSTON — Several of the candidates vying in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate campaign are struggling to define their position on abortion, an issue that also factored prominently in last year’s Senate race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown.
U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, a conservative Democrat, has sought to reconcile his stated anti-abortion position with the more nuanced stance he has taken since entering the contest for John Kerry’s former seat. Lynch has emphasized during interviews and in campaign statements that he would not as a U.S. senator vote to make abortion illegal, nor would he confirm any future U.S. Supreme Court nominee who would overturn the court’s landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.
“I don’t believe that attacking Roe v. Wade is part of any solution. I think that changes the location of these abortions from a clinical setting to one that is much more dangerous for women in crisis,” Lynch says in a video posted on his campaign website. He has also noted his past support for federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
Lynch’s dilemma is clear. The April 30 primary is far more likely to attract core Democratic voters to the polls — voters who strongly support Sen. Warren and regularly embrace candidates who support abortion rights. Thomas Whalen, a political scientist at Boston University, said this makes Lynch’s task of defeating U.S. Rep. Edward Markey all the more challenging.
“Women’s groups are just not going to trust him on this issue,” said Whalen, who added that Lynch appears to be “tying himself in rhetorical knots trying to explain his position.”
Markey already has won the backing of NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, endorsements that also can bring significant financial support.
Ironically, Markey’s own position also has evolved during his lengthy political career. He entered Congress in 1976 as an anti-abortion Democrat and once backed a proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban abortion. His position began to shift in the early 1980s, and he currently has a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood.
The Democrats vying in the Senate election aren’t the only ones who must navigate an issue that can be fraught with political consequences in Massachusetts.
Republican candidates who have won statewide office in Massachusetts during the last quarter century or so have all done so with socially moderate positions that included support for access to abortion. That list includes Brown and former Gov. Mitt Romney, though Romney later reversed his stance during his governorship and subsequent pursuit of the presidency.
Of the three GOP Senate hopefuls, state Rep. Daniel Winslow, a former legal counsel to Romney, has staked out the strongest abortion rights position, declaring himself “unapologetically pro-choice.” Winslow is the only candidate from either major party who has consistently supported abortion rights throughout his career.
Republican Gabriel Gomez, a businessman and former Navy SEAL, has taken a stance similar to that of Democrat Lynch, saying he’s opposes abortion per his Catholic faith while insisting he would not seek to change current law.
Only Michael Sullivan, a former U.S. Attorney, has taken a strong anti-abortion position.
None of the three Republicans, however, said during a recent debate that they would back any kind of “litmus test” on abortion for prospective Supreme Court nominees.
“We will definitely encourage our people to vote for (Sullivan) in the Republican primary,” said Anne Fox, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
Recent history aside, Fox still believes it’s possible for an anti-abortion candidate to win in Massachusetts. As evidence, she cited the defeat last November of a physician-assisted suicide question on the state ballot that was strongly opposed by her organization and the Catholic church, among others.
Whalen, however, believes that while an anti-abortion candidate could triumph in the Republican primary, some in the GOP are likely “holding their breath” over such an outcome, fearing it would doom the party’s chances of winning the June 25 special election.
Brown, who won a 2010 special election to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, repeatedly sought to remind voters that he supported abortion rights during last year’s re-election campaign. Yet Warren still succeeded in scoring points by questioning Brown’s commitment on the issue. Among other things, her campaign pointed to Brown’s support of an amendment that would have let employers deny health care coverage for services they say violate their moral or religious beliefs, including birth control.
Massachusetts Citizens for Life supported Brown, but only because the group considered his views more moderate than those of Warren.
Pro-abortion groups skeptical of Lynch’s guarantees on the issue are pointing to his 2009 vote to back an amendment to the House version of the national health care overhaul that would have prohibited federal funds from going to any insurance plan that includes abortion coverage. Markey opposed the amendment.
Critics also cited Lynch’s 2005 vote against lifting a ban on private funding of abortions at overseas U.S. military installations.
“His votes have made it very clear that he is willing to deny women access to care,” said Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts.