Since US Representative Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston backed off his staunch opposition to abortion early this month, his rival for US Senate has been trying to distinguish himself as the only Democrat in the race who is “100 percent pro-choice.”
US Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden has made the case so well, in fact, that the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America plans to formally endorse him on Thursday.
But three decades ago, Markey was also an abortion opponent who had a conversion before embarking on a campaign for higher office. His evolution began as a congressman, months before he ran for the same Senate seat he’s seeking now.
Like Lynch’s shift, Markey’s change engendered some suspicion. The National Organization for Women issued flyers highlighting Markey’s past votes against abortion rights, and antiabortion advocates were annoyed that Markey had abandoned them.
In an interview on Wednesday, Markey said his shift on abortion was never a political calculation. He said he took his first votes in favor of abortion rights in the fall of 1983, months before there was a prospect of a Senate race. US Senator Paul Tsongas announced in January 1984 that he would not run for reelection due to health reasons.
“I was making a personal decision about what I felt was the right thing to do,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about it in any other context than I felt uncomfortable with the way I was voting.”
Markey’s political career began in the Legislature in 1973, the year the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal.
In 1976, he ran for Congress in a thorny 12-way primary. Antiabortion groups threw their support behind him based on the strength of his position and for fear that voters might split their votes among the many candidates and inadvertently send the pro-choice contender to Congress, said Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life. “We were instrumental in getting him elected,” Fox said.
He won, and for several years, Markey was considered a solid antiabortion Democrat.
He proposed constitutional amendments to ban abortion. He voted for the Hyde Amendment to ban federal funding for abortions under any circumstances. He voted to ban abortions except to save the life of the mother.
Back then, he had plenty of company. The Massachusetts delegation was overwhelmingly opposed to abortion rights in the 1970s. Fox recalled that many congressmen, including Markey, opened their D.C. offices to activists for gatherings following the March for Life rally in 1977. That same year, then-state Representative Raymond Flynn wrote a Globe editorial lauding Markey and a half-dozen other antiabortion members of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation “for not sidestepping their responsibility to the inviolability of human lives.”
But in 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.
To Fox, Markey’s switch was disheartening. She never spoke with him about it, though she credited him for clarifying his position back then. “He voted with us until the early ’80s and I honestly don’t know why he changed,” she said.
“I’m opposed to a constitutional amendment to ban abortion or limit access of poor women to federal funds for abortion,” Markey told the Globe that year. “That is my position and that is the position I’ve had since last year.”
It is, his supporters say, the position he has held consistently ever since.
“Congressman Markey is very strongly prochoice,” said Donna Crane, policy director for NARAL. “He’s unwaveringly prochoice.”
She said the group has no concerns about his record despite his early opposition to abortion and said, “We gladly accept converts. We don’t penalize people for changing their position because we actually think that shows progress.”
Conversely, she expressed skepticism about the stance of Markey’s rival, Lynch.
“He does not have a long record of having voted well on this issue, but his rhetoric is more positive,” she said.
Lynch told the Globe this month that he believes abortion is a constitutionally protected right and he would fight antiabortion nominees to the Supreme Court.
He also supported the Stupak amendment, a measure that would have altered the president’s health care plan by preventing plans in the new health insurance exchange from receiving federal subsidies if they cover abortion.
Markey voted against the Stupak amendment. In the interview yesterday, he reiterated that his views evolved from accepting the tenets of his Catholic upbringing to a more individual belief in women’s rights.
“I came to believe that decisions about a woman’s reproductive health should be left between the woman, her family, her doctor, and her faith,” Markey said. “This issue is one that is intensely personal and I made the decision 30 years ago that I could not and should not impose my religious beliefs on others. And my record since then reflects that.”
In recent years, most members of the delegation have supported abortion rights. Only Lynch, US Representative Richard Neal, and former US senator Scott Brown, a Republican, have cast some opposing votes.