This is a story about how the abortion issue accidentally made someone a U.S. Senator.

After abortion became legal in 1973, anti-abortion forces wanted to make sure that no federal tax dollars would be used to pay for abortions.  There was a concern that women on the Medicaid program would use their Medicaid cards to terminate a pregnancy.  So, every year the anti-abortion Members of Congress would insert language into a federal spending bill saying that no federal dollars could be used for abortions unless the woman’s life was endangered.  They were always successful.  The pro-choice forces took a beating year after year.  It was downright embarrassing.



In the mid-1980’s, I joined the staff of Congressman Les AuCoin, a Democrat from Oregon. He was staunchly pro-choice and was intent on liberalizing those annual abortion restrictions.  One day he told me that he’d like to offer an amendment to the spending bill that would allow federal dollars to be used for victims of rape and incest in addition to those whose lives were endangered.

I immediately convened the pro-choice lobbyists and told them of my boss’ plan. There were mixed reactions.  Some were concerned that another losing vote would further depress the pro-choice movement and some were excited.  We decided to move forward.

Over the next few months, we lobbied very hard for the “AuCoin Amendment.”  Our effort became a national cause, with pro-choice voters across the country urging their Members of Congress to support the measure.   One day, after months of intense lobbying, I told AuCoin that I actually thought we had a chance of winning.  He was stunned.  He figured it would just be another losing effort.

Finally, the day of the vote arrived.  The phone rings on my desk.  It’s AuCoin.  .

“Pat, I hate to tell you this but I can’t offer the amendment.”

“What the hell do you mean?  We’ve been working on this for months.  The pro-choice groups will hang you if you don’t do this!”  He told me that a very powerful – and very pro-life – chairman of a committee told him that if offered his amendment he would never give AuCoin any money for projects back in his district.

“You need to find someone else to offer the amendment,” he said.



I frantically started calling other Members of Congress who were part of our strategy team.  And I kept striking out.   Most of them just said they didn’t have time on their schedule.  I reported my results back to AuCoin and then he said “Did you call Barbara Boxer?”

Barbara Boxer was a relatively unknown Member of Congress from California.  She was very pro-choice, very energetic, perhaps a little too energetic.    She attended all of the pro-choice strategy meetings but rubbed some people the wrong way, so she was not high on our list of potential replacements.  I gulped and picked up the phone.

“Barabara, my boss can’t offer the amendment and we were wondering if you were willing to do it?”

Before I could finish my sentence she said “Meet me on the floor in 30 minutes.”

I ran over to the Capitol, to the floor of the House of Representatives and there she was.  We had about 4 hours to wait before the amendment would be offered, but she was ready to go.

Eventually, she offered “her” amendment and the debate began.  Like a good staff person, I answered her constant questions about the amendment and helped her rebutting some arguments.  She was a nervous bundle of energy, constantly tapping her feet.

After an hour of debate, the vote was taken.  And we won.

When the Speaker of the House announced the final tally, the pro-choice forces erupted in applause and wild cheers.  Finally, a victory in the U.S. Congress!   We left the floor and were greeted by hundreds of supporters, some of them in tears.  That night, the victory was covered on all of the network news programs and the next day it was a front page story in the major newspapers.  The “Boxer Amendment” was national news.  Barbara Boxer was suddenly a national figure.

A few weeks later, Barbara Boxer called me.  “Pat, I want you to know that winning that vote has really energized a lot of pro-choice voters out here in California and I’m thinking of running for the Senate on this issue.”

I was stunned but managed to say “That’s great, Barbara!”

“And when I win, I want you to join my staff.”   I didn’t respond.

For the next six months, the pro-choice movement poured a crap load of money and resources into her campaign.  And in November, she became the Senator from California.

It’s funny how things work out, huh?