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JOAN VENNOCHI

Today, Shannon O’Brien is not so sure what she’d say about abortion under 18 without parental consent

(Credit: Globe Staff; Adobe)

Why should a 16-year-old girl be able to get an abortion but not a tattoo without parental consent?

When the late Tim Russert famously posed that question to Democrat Shannon O’Brien during a 2002 gubernatorial debate, her quip — “Would you like to see my tattoo?” — was not well received. Beyond abortion rights activists, neither was her support for lowering the age a young woman could get an abortion without parental consent, from 18 to 16. In contrast, Republican Mitt Romney promised to “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose,” by keeping state laws as they were. With that assurance, Romney was able to close the gender gap and go on to defeat O’Brien — and then, as a presidential candidate, go on to embrace the antiabortion cause.

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Under President Trump and the broad-based Republican assault on abortion rights, the politics of this issue are even more intense. But eliminating age restrictions on abortion, as Massachusetts lawmakers are currently considering, is still controversial. Even O’Brien — now the principal of the O’Brien Advisory Group and the mother of a 19-year-old daughter — told me: “I’m not sure how I would answer it today.” She said, “I believe in parental consent. . . . [But] when you have this judicial intervention, it can delay the timing of an abortion. Do I want to wait longer? No, I don’t.”

In other words, progressive feminists are not immune from ambivalence and soul-searching when it comes to what O’Brien calls the “sub-issues” of abortion access. Yet while polling identifies a middle ground on abortion, activists on either side prefer to ignore it. That’s especially dangerous for Democrats, said O’Brien. “As a political issue, I think it’s a mistake for the champions of a woman’s health care right to take such a hard line that they don’t make room for people who will defend Roe v. Wade,” she said. “Those of us in that broad tent need to be focused on the bigger picture. If we fight over the more controversial details we could end up losing Roe v. Wade. That scares me.”

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Democrats should be welcoming everyone who supports Roe v. Wade, said O’Brien, “rather than slinging arrows” at politicians who aren’t in lockstep with those pushing for the most expansive version of abortion rights. As examples, she cited US Representative Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, who felt compelled to distance himself even further from the antiabortion agenda he once supported; and Joe Biden, who recently said he now supports federal funding for abortion, after he was blasted for opposing it.

When O’Brien first ran for the Legislature in 1986, she opposed abortion. She changed her position to support expanded abortion rights in 1990, and further evolved to what she said during that debate: “I passionately support a woman’s right to choose.” What she’s saying now is that you can support abortion rights and still disagree over the details of what that means.

Concerning age restrictions, she said that after the 2002 debate, “Some of the people most annoyed with me were liberal pro-choice women who believe they have such a close relationship with their child, they would absolutely be part of the discussion.” When my daughter was 16, I would have put myself in that category. Now that she’s almost 26, I know my smugness over our perceived relationship was misplaced. There were many things going on in her life that I knew nothing about. While I like the idea of parental consent, as a practical matter, I now understand there are many young women who don’t have a support system or wouldn’t tap into it, even if they did.

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On the larger point, however, I agree with O’Brien. It’s unrealistic and politically unwise to expect abortion rights supporters to all be at the point of agreement on the access spectrum.

As O’Brien found out, they weren’t all in the same place in 2002. And they aren’t there today, either.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.