If Nancy Reagan ever dropped in on Texas, she would make a foursome: four past and present Republican First Ladies, all married to anti-abortion politicians, and yet who themselves, to varying degrees, support a right to abortion.
Anita Perry, wife of the super-duper pro-lifer Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who just signed into law very stringent abortion regulations, let it slip over the weekend that she regards abortion as “a woman’s right.”
She answered a question at the Texas Tribune festival with an equivocal-sounding response – that she and her husband agree on abortion — but with an eyebrow-raising kicker: It’s a “difficult” question, she said, “because I see it as a women's right. If they want to do that, that is their decision; they have to live with that decision."
“That could be a woman’s right, just like it’s a man’s right if he wants to have some kind of procedure,” she said. “But I don't agree with it, and that's not my view."
I think she means she wouldn’t get one herself, but if other women choose to get an abortion, on their heads be it. She defended the clinic-shutting rules her husband and the Texas Legislature just endorsed as being in the interests of women’s “safety.”
Hers is not by any means a full-throated endorsement, not enough for Planned Parenthood chief and fellow Texan Cecile Richards, daughter of another Texas governor, to call her up and schedule a girlfriends’ gab lunch, yet it could be enough to move the needle.
But move it where?
Did Anita Perry truly let this comment slip? Or was it a calculated move to steal some Panhandle thunder from Wendy Davis, the Texas Democrat who filibustered to stop that abortion law, and walked her pink sneakers right into a national spotlight — and a possible run for governor?
The list of Republican first spouses who have — sometimes softly and then more vocally, and rarely when their husbands are actually in power — opposed their husbands’ anti-abortion policies is a substantial one. Nancy Reagan said at George Washington University in 1994 that while she’s personally against abortion, she wouldn’t deny the right to other women.
It’s a nice, politically adroit nuancing of the abortion matter. They have not made a point of announcing their opinions, and when they’ve allowed themselves to be drawn out on the matter, they’ve made it clear simultaneously that they’re not that kind of woman, but if other women are, that should be up to them.
Barbara Bush, wife of one president, mother of another, also parsed the personal and the political. “I hate abortions, but just could not make that choice for someone else," she once said.
Laura Bush, a former Texas and more recently U.S. first lady, answered monosyllabically on inauguration morning in 2001 when she was asked whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. “No,” she said. After her husband left office, she elaborated on that, that it’s “important” that abortion remain legal, and that she disagreed with her husband’s administration's campaign against gay marriage.
A few weeks before the 1972 election, President Richard Nixon’s wife, Pat, said she regarded abortion as a personal choice, but didn’t like abortion “on demand,” a loaded phrase whose meaning has always puzzled me. And she also said it should be left to the states to decide. There was a point of view somewhere in there for everyone to embrace.
Maybe the “on demand” phrase came from her husband. Four months later, after the Roe v. Wade decision, he was heard in the Oval Office saying that legal abortion encourages permissiveness, but endorsing exceptions for rape and interracial pregnancies.
The landmark Roe ruling did not generate then anything remotely like the divisiveness it has recently — much like the Affordable Care Act, which is now being used as a political tool, not as a public policy.
The website Slate is not alone in speculating that conservative politicians are in fact advantaged by cannily letting it be known that they’re getting some pro-choice pillow talk from the missus.
It makes them look broad-minded, less doctrinaire, less dictatorial, when the lady of the house can harbor political positions at odds with her hubby’s.
Maybe 2016 will be an election year when we see campaign couples out and about the way they fast-pitch a sitcom: “He’s anti-abortion. She’s pro abortion rights. And they’re moving into the White House!”
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes
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