Ohio Congressman describes 'evolution' from pro-life to pro-choice

Congressman Tim Ryan
Congressman Tim Ryan

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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Late last month, Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, announced a change in his "thinking" on the question of abortion.

For years, the 41 year old Democrat -- a Catholic -- had maintained a delicate political balancing act: publicly pro-life but voting from an increasingly pro-choice frame of mind. 

On Jan. 27, the Ohio congressman made it official. In an op-ed for the Akron Beacon Journal, Ryan announced he had switched sides.

"I have come a long way since being a single, 26-year-old state senator, and I am not afraid to say that my position has evolved as my experiences have broadened, deepened and become more personal," he wrote.

"I have come to believe that we must trust women and families -- not politicians -- to make the best decision for their lives."

Speaking to NCR, Ryan further explained the "evolution" of his thinking on the question of abortion.

The moment, when Ryan thought "Alright, this has been clarified for me," occurred while "sitting in a doctor's office, waiting for test results," he says.

It was 2014.

"My wife was pregnant, and I was right there with her through all the doctor's visits and all the tests that she had to take," he said. "I remember being in the doctor's office with her … and we didn't know what the results are going to say, and it crystalized for me that Uncle Sam should not be in this doctor's office with us."

It took years to get to that point, Ryan says.

"I grew up Catholic," he said. "I was an altar boy. I grew up in and around the church. My grandparents were volunteers. My mom was a volunteer. My grandmother was in the Rosary Club. My grandfather was an usher."

"I grew up in an environment that really was very, very Catholic," Ryan said, "and I loved it. It was a beautiful way to grow up."

Eventually, Ryan made it into politics, first as a state senator, then as a U.S. congressman. 

"I was pro-life" back then, he said. "That was how I thought of myself. But I didn't give a whole lot of thought to this issue -- most of the issues I campaigned on were jobs and economic development, and bringing back old Rust Belt towns."

Nevertheless, in time, Ryan "dove into the middle of the abortion wars." 

He remembered thinking, "there's common ground here." He wanted to see if it were possible to "reduce the number of abortions by coming together behind an initiative that reduced unintended pregnancies."

"How do we reduce unintended pregnancies?" he wondered. "How do we put initiatives together that help that happen?"

Ryan said he saw contraception playing a role, and mentioned wanting to push for "programs that would support a mom if she wanted to bring the baby to term."

In 2006, the pro-life Democrat worked with pro-choice congresswoman, Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., on an abortion-reduction legislative package called the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act.

The duo "worked with both sides" Ryan said, but was unable to "get many pro-lifers to come on board, especially the Catholic groups," as the legislation accepted the use of contraception.

That reluctance became "a real issue" for the Ohio congressman. 

"In 13 years of Catholic school, I was taught about my faith and all the rest," he said. "But I was also taught to think, and analyze, and reason … and it just didn't make any sense. It didn't make common sense. It didn't seem compassionate. It didn't seem realistic."

"And so I started to drift," he said.

The rift between Ryan and pro-life circles widened in 2008 when he was removed from the board of Democrats for Life of America (DFLA), a pro-life Democratic group.

"There was a time when pro-life Democrats were proud of Congressman Ryan," wrote Kristen Day, president of DFLA, in 2009. "He was even elected to the National Advisory Board for Democrats For Life of America. But in the last year or so Congressman Ryan's voting record has become more and more pro-abortion. After his last vote in favor of taxpayer funded abortions, his credibility as a pro-life legislator has crumbled with the national pro-life community."

Credibility further crumbled during the debates on the Affordable Healthcare Act, debates which "brought up a lot of issues with regard to women's healthcare." 

Ryan said he found himself having many of the same arguments that he did on the abortion-reduction legislation.

"At that point, I just didn't care," he said. "I was like 'This doesn't make any sense, you have to have contraception, you have to access, and age-appropriate sex education, and all the rest."

"And so I started thinking to myself, 'Now I'm really into the weeds on this thing.' Let me start reaching out to the pro-choice groups. Let me see if I can meet with women" who deal with this issue.

By meeting and speaking with women -- sometimes randomly, other times through colleagues -- Ryan began collecting stories. 

"They would tell me stories, like a priest," he said. "This was over the next two, three, four years."

The women "were in some very tough circumstances, and it was complicated," he said. "What was 'right' was complicated … I don't know how you can have a law that says 'yes you can' or 'no you can't' that will apply to all these different scenarios. Sometimes you just can't legislate down into every possible scenario."

And then it was 2014. He was in and out of doctor's offices with his pregnant wife, and he concluded there was no room for the government in that office. His son Brady was born later that year.

Ryan is considering running for the Senate in 2016 against Republican Rob Portman. Did that affect the timing of his op-ed?

"I've been fooling around with this op-ed since the fall," he said. "It's hard for a newspaper to run," an opinion like his, "during an election season, because it would basically be giving me a platform during a campaign year. So it got pushed off into January."

"But you know," he said, "when you run every two years, it's always political, it's always an election season. There's no off time. You're either running that year or running the next year, so your critics are always going to be cynical about your position."

To be sure, his critics aren't buying it.

"It's opportunity, it's politics," said Day. "He became pro-choice five years ago. It's nothing new. This is just an indication of what happens in the Democratic Party. When people want to move up, they feel like they really have to come out swinging on the pro-choice side in order to get money to run for higher office."

"It's just disappointing," she said.

"It's always frustrating to see these switches," Vince Miller, the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton, wrote in an email to NCR. "They are a sign of the stark primary situation amidst the broader culture war." 

"The general election climate is no better," he wrote. "So many pro-life Democrats were ousted by Tea Party Republicans in 2010." Meanwhile, "moderate Republicans closer to the church's social teaching haven't been glimpsed for decades."

"It's clear on so many fronts that we need politicians who are able to challenge the inadequate frames that divide us, rather than simply navigate them," Miller wrote.

Congresswoman DeLauro defended Ryan. 

"Tim Ryan and I have worked together for many years," she wrote in a statement. "He is someone of conviction, tenacity and vision, who is not afraid to challenge his own beliefs."

"We worked closely on legislation that would reduce the need for abortion," she wrote, "and I know how seriously he takes this subject. I have no doubt that his evolution on this issue came from a deeply personal, contemplative place. Congress would be a better place if we had 535 Tim Ryans." 

In response to his critics, Ryan said, "They're not there when I have to look in the mirror in the morning, and be honest with myself. They don't have to live my decisions the way that I have to do. And I think it's very presumptuous of them to claim to know what's in my heart."

"You know, these are tough calls and sometimes you don't know what the right call is," Ryan said. "Sometimes, there are competing interests between the mom and the baby, and you just don't know. You just don't know every scenario. You can't possibility legislate every scenario."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.] 

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 27-March 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: Democrat describes 'evolution' from pro-life to pro-choice.

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