Ed Markey’s Anti-Abortion Past

The Globe makes a good point about Markey's criticisms of Stephen Lynch.

Rep. Ed Markey has not let anyone forget that Rep. Stephen Lynch has notably shifted toward a more pro-choice stance in the run-up to his campaign for Senate, but The Boston Globe’s Stephanie Ebbert makes a good point by looking at Rep. Ed Markey’s own reversal on the issue. (Update: The Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld points out that he made this same good point a bit more briefly a  day before Ebbert.) Markey ran for Congress in 1976 with the backing of anti-abortion groups, and voted accordingly for several years until 1983, just before running for Paul Tsongas’s vacant Senate seat, when his votes began to change. Markey insists his conscience, not his desire for a Senate seat, motivated him, and that his position changed before the Senate seat even opened. Ebbert writes:

[I]n the fall of 1983, Markey began a retreat, twice voting against measures to block funding for federal employees’ abortions unless necessary to save a mother’s life. As a candidate in 1984, he clarified his stance in a policy paper and in interviews, saying that while he remained personally opposed to abortion on moral grounds, he could no longer impose those views on others. 

This is, coincidentally, a middle ground position that should sound familiar to students of another famous pivot on the abortion issue. No one knows how to walk a delicate line when discussing abortion better than our own Mitt Romney. Here’s Romney talking to the Washington Post in 2008:

I can tell you what my position is, and it’s in a very narrowly defined sphere, as candidate for governor and as governor of Massachusetts … What I said to people was that I personally did not favor abortion, that I am personally pro-life. However, as governor I would not change the laws of the commonwealth relating to abortion.

All this raises the obvious question asked by many a pundit during Mitt Romney’s race for the Republican nomination: What’s so wrong with changing your mind? In a way, shifting your policies to better match an electorate whom you’d like to represent is how a representative democracy is supposed to work at least some of the time. Obama changed his position on gay marriage once it became clear how things seemed to be moving, and gay marriage supporters applauded him for his ability to feel which way the historical wind is blowing.

But with a debate as morally tinged as abortion, candidates don’t like to signal to voters that political gain weighed more heavily on their mind than other considerations that might inform their opinion. Voters don’t like to see that a candidate could change his mind on an issue they care a lot about, either, especially when rival campaigns suggest he might change it again should the winds shift. On gay marriage, Obama has avoided the kind of “flip-flopping” label others get in part because few seriously suspect him of making his move for existential electoral gain. (Were gay marriage supporters going to vote for Romney or stay home in numbers significant enough to let Romney win? Probably not.)

While shifts motivated by a desire to win office are ugly, some argue they have the same effect on voting as shifts motivated by purer ideals. Over on the MassPoliticsProfs blog, the political scientist Jarold Duquette, speaking specifically about Lynch, argues that the personal opinions that lie beneath a politician’s politically convenient public positions don’t matter that much:

Lynch’s is a perfect example of how much more important party labels are than personal profiles.

The progressive Democrats lining up behind Markey who are feverishly attacking Lynch as a D.I.N.O. [that’s Democrat in Name Only] or worse are making a mountain out of a mole hill. Lynch’s high profile defections from the party line as a member of the House were no more threatening to the party’s legislative efforts than were Scott Brown’s occasional defections from his Republican leadership during his brief stay in the Senate. If Stephen Lynch manages to pull out this primary race against Markey, he will NOT be a threat to the Party’s efforts to advance a progressive agenda in the US Senate.

Of course, he can’t know that for certain, but he’s speaking of probability. If Lynch behaves as most Senators do, he’ll vote the party line where it counts. So will Markey. Both of them have opposed abortion in the past, and both made a shift suspiciously close to a run for Senate (though Lynch denies that his is a shift at all.)

Markey has the advantage of time: he made his move decades ago and his a long voting record to reassure anyone who thinks he isn’t steadfast. Lynch has to hope that pro-choice voters take his commitment to vote how they’d like at his word. That’s tougher to do, but at least he can point to a historical example of a candidate who shifted toward public support for abortion and then stayed there: his opponent.