SNAP QUIZ: Who was the most prominent Massachusetts politician to flip-flop on abortion? No, it’s not Mitt Romney; it’s Edward M. Kennedy.
Unlike Romney’s switch, the late senator’s change from anti-abortion to pro-choice occurred in a less media-saturated era, the early ’70s. There were no dueling videos. No cable news. And political reporters were overwhelmingly male. Abortion was not yet the divisive issue it became.
On Oct. 21, 1970, as a reporter for the Globe, I followed Kennedy on a long day of campaigning in southeastern Massachusetts. His opponent was Josiah “Si’’ Spaulding, a Republican so liberal he probably couldn’t get a seat at a Middlesex Club dinner these days. Kennedy was running for reelection after his first full six-year term and trying to overcome the shame of Chappaquiddick a year earlier.
We met at the senator’s house in Charles River Square before dawn and took off by car on a day that would include 23 campaign stops, winding up at Bridgewater State College (now University). Spaulding, trying to confront his elusive, better-known opponent, showed up for an impromptu debate, the most impassioned part of which involved abortion.
Spaulding favored legalizing abortion, which was then outlawed in Massachusetts and nearly every other state. Kennedy, in a booming voice that would become more familiar to voters in future years, lashed out at Spaulding, Referring to adoption, he said, “Don’t tell me there’s not enough love in the world to take care of all the babies that are born.’’ I had never seen him so worked up on an issue.
Earlier that month on “Meet the Press,’’ he had asserted that a “fetus has some rights,’’ including “the right to life.’’
Kennedy went on to defeat Spaulding handily. But the dynamics of the abortion issue were beginning to change. That same year, New York passed legislation allowing abortions up to the 24th week of a pregnancy. Colorado had legalized abortion in 1967. In 1973, the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade established abortion rights nationally.
According to Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer, Kennedy’s first recorded support for federally funded abortions occurred during debate of Senate legislation that would have banned such funding. In Kennedy’s autobiography, “True Compass,’’ the word “abortion’’ does not even appear in the index. Nor did the Globe’s biography, “Last Lion,’’ address his change on the issue. But by 1987, he was an outspoken pro-choice advocate, warning that the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork would lead to “a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions.’’
Although abortion is a moral issue that is deeply personal and emotional, it is no less a political issue. In a nationally televised speech in 1984 at the University of Notre Dame, then Governor Mario Cuomo of New York noted that 19th-century Catholic bishops, though opposed to slavery on moral grounds, did not argue for abolition before the Civil War. “They weren’t hypocrites; they were realists.’’
Kennedy never publicly echoed Cuomo, who said he was personally against abortion but determined it was not a practical interdiction to be applied to society as a whole. The New York governor referenced the failed era of Prohibition. Two former Kennedy aides with whom I spoke professed not to know the senator’s personal feelings on abortion. One said that the aide Kennedy most often confided in on abortion was Eddie Martin, who died in 2006. Kennedy died in 2009. So the reasoning toward his changed view may be lost to history.
There are some ironies in this story. In nearly five decades of public life, there were few issues that Kennedy wavered on. He would come to be known for stubbornly clinging to some liberal ideals long after they were fashionable. Such constancy is unlikely to be attributed to Romney. Another is that from all appearances, it was precisely Kennedy’s revised stance that prompted Romney’s pro-choice statements when he ran against Kennedy for the Senate in 1994.
It would seem that even on the gut-wrenching issue of abortion, the overworked quote from Tip O’Neill applies: “All politics is local.’’