Chris Christie, who last week prodded Republicans to drop anti-abortion rhetoric to appeal to more voters, has steadily weakened access to the procedure in New Jersey.
Even with a Democratic-controlled legislature committed to reproductive rights, the second-term governor’s annual funding cuts for women’s health services have prompted at least six clinics to close since 2010, according to lawmakers.
Christie, a possible White House contender in 2016, told Republican leaders in Colorado on July 25 that they need to recast how they promote their views on social issues without altering their positions. The first New Jersey governor to publicly declare himself against abortion since the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling says he favored the right until he heard his unborn daughter’s heartbeat.
“The governor, particularly because he’s had to face differing constituencies with differing opinions on this issue, has had to be enormously careful about what he says and where he says it,” Brigid Harrison, a politics professor at Montclair State University, said by telephone July 25.
Voters whose most important issue is abortion would “look at his record of action,” she said. “He eliminated funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, even preventative health care.”
Chipping away at a right upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, anti-abortion activists nationwide have scored such rules as mandatory ultrasounds, hospital affiliation agreements and parental consent for minors.
From 2011 to 2013, more than 200 restrictions were enacted in states including Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Republicans control governor’s offices and legislatures. During the 10 years prior, 189 such laws were enacted, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research group in New York City. That drive has helped lead at least 70 clinics to close or stop offering the procedure since 2011.
Christie’s comments at the Aspen Institute reflect a push to retool the party’s image to reach beyond its base. After Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential race, the Republican National Committee recommended a warmer welcome for those who disagree with its platform on abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
“People want folks who are authentic and who believe what they say is true, but also who are tolerant and willing to listen to other points of view,” Christie said in his talk held in conjunction with the Republican Governors Association summer meeting in Aspen.
Yet Christie worked steadily to reduce access to the procedure. When he first ran for governor in 2009 against incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, he said officials needed to “work to reduce abortions in New Jersey through laws such as parental notification, a 24-hour waiting period and a ban on partial-birth abortion.”
Christie won, becoming the first Republican elected New Jersey governor in more than a decade. Since he took office, Democratic lawmakers, with a 72-48 majority, haven’t moved a bill to restrict the termination of pregnancies.
“The Democratic legislature is none too eager to accommodate the views of the pro-life potential presidential candidate,” said David O’Steen, executive director of National Right to Life, a Washington-based group seeking to overturn the Roe ruling, which legalized abortion.
Among the 29 states with Republican governors, New Jersey ranks second only to Maine for access to abortion services, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, a reproductive-rights group with headquarters in Washington.
“Our legislature believes in pro-choice,” Senate President Steve Sweeney, 55, the state’s highest elected Democrat, said by telephone on July 23. Anti-abortion groups “can organize and make their attempt to get the governor’s support, but they won’t have the legislature’s support.”
Christie has pressed ahead without lawmakers’ help. In his fiscal 2011 budget, he canceled $7.5 million in funding that went to 58 clinics that provided low-income women with services including health and reproductive care. Within a year, six closed, according to Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat who has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to restore the money.
Christie, a Roman Catholic father of four, has said he supports exceptions to abortion bans for rape or incest or when the mother’s life is at risk. Though he hasn’t cast his views as part of a cultural war, he has been open about them on the national stage.
“If you’re pro-life, as I am, you need to be pro-life for the whole life,” Christie said last month at a Washington conference of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “You can’t just afford to be pro-life when a human being is in the womb.”
Life “is precious and a gift from God,” he said at New Jersey Right to Life’s annual statehouse rally in Trenton in 2011.
“We’ve never had a pro-life governor before,” Marie Tasy, director of group, said in an interview.
Deb Huber, acting president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women, said that the governor “single-handedly defunded Planned Parenthood in New Jersey.”
“He doesn’t brag about it in those terms, but wait until he runs for president,” she said. “You may hear those words coming out of his mouth.”
Christie’s path hasn’t hurt him with one key constituency. In his 2013 re-election campaign against Democrat Barbara Buono, a supporter of abortion rights, he won 56 percent of the women’s vote.