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Friday, August 31, 2012

Massachusetts Senator Supported by Both Sides of Abortion Debate


Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, has achieved a rare distinction. In a highly partisan environment, he has received support from the opposing sides in one of the nation's most enduring and polarizing debates - over abortion.

He was endorsed on Wednesday by the Republican Majority for Choice; before that, he received the backing of Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

For Mr. Brown, the support from the opposing camps is a badge of honor and a sign of his ability to reach across traditional political boundaries to the independent voters he needs.

To his critics, it is a mark of his ability to blur his Republican identity and be all things to all people.

Mr. Brown, who is locked in a tight race against Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who strongly supports abortion rights, describes himself as “pro-choice.” He objected to the Republican Party platform's hard line against abortion. Asked by a reporter recently whether he would pledge to “never vote in the Senate to curb women's reproductive rights,” Mr. Brown replied: “I'll promise that.”

But some of his past votes would not pass that test. Perhaps most notably, he co-sponsored the Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed employers to refuse to pay for certain health benefits, including contraception, if they opposed them on religious grounds. He opposes taxpayer financing for abortions (though he recently supported allowing such financing for women in the military who are raped). He opposes the procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion and supports strong laws regarding parental consent.

The upshot of this dance is that Mr. Brown appears to be both for abortion rights and against them, a straddling that prompted one Twitter user to write that his positioning seemed “like being a little bit pregnant.”

Speaking to reporters on Thursday at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Mr. Brown did little to clarify things.

Asked if he could prove his “pro-choice credentials,” he said: “I don't need to prove anything. I let my record speak for myself. I feel very comfortable getting support from everybody.”

Mr. Brown promotes himself as an independent, often pointing out that he has voted with his party only 54 percent of the time. Not being “pure” on the issue of abortion - from the perspective of either side - helps underscore that profile.

The National Right to Life Committee gives Mr. Brown a positive score of 80 percent, saying he has voted with its position on four of five votes that the group considers important.

At the same time, Naral Pro-Choice America has given him a score of only 50 percent on votes it considers important - unusually low for someone who considers himself “pro-choice.” In fact, some groups that favor abortion rights do not consider him one o f their own.

“One right vote in the midst of scores of wrong votes does not make you pro-choice,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily's List, which supports Democratic women who back abortion rights and has endorsed Ms. Warren.

But those who have endorsed Mr. Brown are less hung up on the concept of ideological purity and take a more practical approach. If Mr. Brown is re-elected, they say, he could help bring a Republican majority to the Senate, which is more important in the long run than how Mr. Brown may vote on individual bills.

Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said that her group was backing Mr. Brown because he represented the better of two alternatives.

“In an ideal world, we would have someone who is 100 percent pro-life,” she said. “But we live in the real world.”

She said she understood that Mr. Brown was “pro-choice” because “he wants abortion to be available,” but her group is recom mending that its members vote for him anyway because it sees him as “less extreme” than Ms. Warren. (The group is not officially “endorsing” him because it endorses only those who are “pro-life.”)

Kellie Ferguson, executive director of the Republican Majority for Choice, which endorsed Mr. Brown on Wednesday, said her group was also not focused on ideological purity.

“A litmus test is not practical,” she said. “The Republican Party platform is so extreme that even the presidential nominee doesn't meet its litmus test.”

The Republican Majority had not planned to get involved in the Massachusetts race because abortion did not appear to be a factor in it, Ms. Ferguson said.

But it was moved to do so, she said, when Ms. Warren began trying to link Mr. Brown with Todd Akin, the Missouri Senate candidate who put forth the bizarre claim this month that a woman who had been the victim of “legitimate” rape could not get pregnant, obvia ting the need for abortions. Mr. Brown was the first Republican to call for Mr. Akin to drop out of the Senate race, but Ms. Warren tried to tar him with the Akin brush.

“We thought it was unfair to use this national strategy of tying every Republican to the most absurd and inexcusable statement instead of looking at the record,” Ms. Ferguson said. “We felt there was a distortion, and this was an opportunity to set that record straight.”

Mr. Brown's campaign appears content to live with the dichotomy of having support from the two opposing camps, even if it muddies the waters - or perhaps because it muddies the waters.

The Warren campaign hopes to portray him as an unreliable vote for women.

“Scott Brown may say the right things some of the time, but women in Massachusetts need someone who will stand up for them all the time,” said Alethea Harney, a spokeswoman for Ms. Warren. “On issue after issue, Scott Brown hasn't been there - votin g against equal pay for equal work and supporting a bill that would allow employers to limit access to birth control. Women just can't count on him.”

Isabella Moschen contributed reporting from Tampa, Fla.

Follow Katharine Q. Seelye on Twitter at @kseelye.