Republican U.S. Senator Scott Brown, left, shakes hands with his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren prior to debate sponsored by the Boston Herald at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, Massachusetts, Monday, October 1, 2012.
Mitt Romney launched a new strategy to position himself as a moderate Republican during the first presidential debate, a move that has already reaped moderate successes in the polls. But, the strategy has a forerunner. Senator Scott Brown, the two-year Massachusetts incumbent facing a strong challenge from Democrat Elizabeth Warren, claimed the mantle of "Last Remaining Sane Republican" while Romney was still trying to outdo Rick Santorum in a contest of who had the least respect for women’s basic health care rights. (Full disclosure: Warren's daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, is a member of The American Prospect’s board of directors and is chair of the board of the magazine’s publishing partner, Demos.)
One of the linchpins of Brown’s pretense to that legendary beast, the moderate Republican, is his claim to be pro-choice. As with Governor Romney, Brown clearly believes that positioning himself as a defender of women’s reproductive rights is a necessary minimum to be elected to statewide office in Massachusetts. As recently as August, Brown reiterated his self-identification as pro-choice:
In a letter sent Tuesday to Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus (ryns PREE'-bus), Brown says the party's platform should include concessions that respect the views of pro-choice Republicans like himself.
Brown said it would be a mistake for the GOP to adopt a platform that calls for a constitutional amendment banning abortion.
Unfortunately for pro-choice voters, Brown’s idea of pro-choice doesn’t resemble the kind of broad support for women’s reproductive rights and health care access most of us think of when we wield the term. Brown has regularly chipped away at women’s reproductive rights without pressure from his own party: indeed, he acted to narrow reproductive rights even when he had to face off against his own party and didn’t stand to gain politically.
During the 2010 campaign against Democrat Martha Coakley, it came to light that, in 2005, Brown had filed a bill amendment in the Massachusetts state legislature that would have given doctors and nurses the right to deny emergency contraception to rape victims, on the grounds that their religion taught that even rapist sperm deserves an unimpeded shot at an egg. When Coakley ran ads pointing this out, Brown sent his daughters out to make a breathtakingly disingenuous statement: “Martha Coakley’s new negative ad represents everything that discourages young women from getting involved in politics.” The implication being, apparently, that in order to get young women to feel enthusiastic about politics it’s necessary to hide the ways that a candidate undermines their access to health care in the event of a violent crime committed against them. Of course, in the real world, it’s understood that telling young women their rights are threatened inspires them to vote, albeit not very often for the candidates who oppose their rights.
Brown had a mildly anti-choice voting record in the Massachusetts state legislature, including cosponsoring a mandatory waiting period for abortion, but it was when he got to the U.S. Senate that he went on the attack against women’s access to safe reproductive health care. Brown co-sponsored the notorious Blunt amendment, which would give any employer the right to veto insurance coverage for any service of which they disapprove. It was intended primarily to give employers’ veto rights over women’s contraception coverage. While Brown supports federally funded abortions for military women who have been raped, he opposed a law that would give servicewomen access to privately funded abortions at military facilities. Because many servicewomen only have access to military facilities, blocking this measure effectively bans abortion for those women.
Brown also initially joined with his fellow Republicans during the budget showdown over Planned Parenthood, voting for a budget that would eliminate the organization’s family planning funding, none of which goes to abortion. After the issue blew up into a national scandal, Brown changed his mind, and released a statement of support for funding Planned Parenthood. He has since voted in favor of Planned Parenthood’s funding every time Republicans try to eliminate it. Overall, though, his work earned him an 80 percent rating from National Right to Life.
The Planned Parenthood incident demonstrates the likeliest explanation for the confused approach Brown takes to reproductive health issues. It appears that he will try to vote as far to the right on reproductive health as he feels he can without riling up Massachusetts voters. With Planned Parenthood, he stumbled, underestimating the voters’ support for federal contraception subsidies. Otherwise, he goes the extra mile, which is why he didn’t just vote to give bosses veto power over contraception coverage; he co-sponsored the bill. He is, at best, only reluctantly pro-choice, with a long record of making politically unnecessary moves to undermine women’s health care access.
What the Scott Brown example shows is that the idea of the pro-choice Republican is a thing of the past. The trend of eliminating actual pro-choice thought from the Republican Party has been ongoing for decades, which is why George H.W. Bush was nicknamed “Rubbers” during his stint in Congress but conveniently wanted to ban abortion when he turned his eye to the Presidency. What’s being passed off now as a “pro-choice” Republican instead looks more like Scott Brown, which is someone who would be better described as somewhat reluctant to attack women’s reproductive health care access some of the time. That’s not an acceptable substitute. His opponent, Elizabeth Warren, falls in line more with the views of Massachusetts voters on the issue of reproductive rights, which is likely one reason she’s been able to close the gap in polls with him and has a very good chance of beating him on Election Day.