POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2012
WASHINGTON » From the moment he left business for politics, the issue of abortion has bedeviled Mitt Romney.
In 1994, as a Senate candidate, he invoked the story of a "close family relative" who had died after an illegal abortion and insisted that abortion should be "safe and legal," though he was personally opposed. In 2002, running for governor of Massachusetts, he sought the endorsement of abortion rights advocates, promising to be "a good voice" among Republicans, one advocate said.
In 2005, Gov. Romney shocked constituents by writing an opinion articled in The Boston Globe that declared: "I am pro-life." Running for president two years later, he struggled to explain that turnabout. "I never said I was pro-choice, but my position was effectively pro-choice," Romney told George Stephanopoulos of ABC during a Republican debate. "I changed my position."
Now, with the nation's culture wars erupting anew, Romney has plunged headlong into abortion politics.
He tangled with President Barack Obama last week over whether religiously affiliated hospitals should be required to provide free contraceptives — "abortive pills," Romney called them. And when a breast cancer group pulled its financing from Planned Parenthood, Romney called on the federal government to follow suit, saying, "The idea that we're subsidizing an institution that provides abortion, in my view, is wrong."
The comments reflect Romney's evolution from abortion rights advocate to abortion foe; gone was any trace of the candidate for governor who, 10 years ago, answered a Planned Parenthood questionnaire by saying he backed "state funding of abortion services" under Medicaid.
Today Romney is working hard to convince his party's skeptical right wing that he is "adamantly pro-life," especially in the wake of his embarrassing loss in three states last week to Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania and a stalwart of the anti-abortion movement. Yet the more Romney courts social conservatives, the more two of his Republican rivals, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, dredge up his past to attack him as a flip-flopper.
Meanwhile, Democrats and their allies are painting Republicans, including Romney, as "a radical bunch when it comes to women's health" who are "going backward on birth control," as Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in an interview last week. If that message sticks, it could hurt Romney with women and independents, a critical voting bloc in a general election.
Romney's transformation on abortion is, in some respects, the story of a man who entered public life in a state whose politics did not match his own. People close to Romney say they have no doubt that he opposes terminating a pregnancy. Critics and even some supporters say there is also little question that he did what he had to do to get elected as governor.
"He was always uncomfortable on the issue, but he was penned in by having run as a pro-choice candidate in 1994 and by the political realities of Massachusetts in 2002," said Rob Gray, a senior adviser to Romney's campaign for governor. "It was made clear to him by advisers early on in his gubernatorial race that he had to be pro-choice, and he could not show any hesitation."
Romney declined a request to be interviewed for this article. But in a speech on Friday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, he made his current stance plain.
"Let me be clear," he said. "Mine will be a pro-life presidency."
Long before he confronted abortion as a public policy question, Romney, a faithful Mormon, grappled with it as a religious matter.
The Mormon Church opposes abortion, except in cases of rape and incest or when the life of the mother is in danger. As a Mormon bishop in the 1980s in his hometown of Belmont, Mass., Romney tried to talk a congregant, a married mother of four, out of having an abortion after doctors advised her to terminate her pregnancy because of a potentially lethal blood clot.
But by 1994, challenging Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Romney sought to establish himself as an ardent backer of abortion rights. In a televised debate, Kennedy lodged a broadside: "I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice." Romney shot back with the dramatic story of a relative's illegal abortion, saying her death had shaped the views of his mother, Lenore, who ran for the Senate in 1970.
"It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter," Romney said. "And you will not see me wavering on that."
By 2005, with Romney eyeing a possible presidential bid, he began to distance himself from his abortion rights platform. "My political philosophy is pro-life," he told The National Review, a conservative magazine, in an article that June. That same story quoted his top strategist at the time, Mike Murphy, as saying Romney had been "a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly."
After supporting embryonic stem cell research generally, Romney took a more specific stand against creating embryos for scientific experimentation. And when the state Legislature sent him a bill to expand access to emergency contraception, he vetoed it. He said a medical professional had advised him that the drug — known as the morning-after pill — would "terminate life after conception."
For Romney, that appears to have been a pivotal moment. He recently told the editorial board of The Des Moines Register that he realized then that he could not "just leave things the way they were," as he had hoped. In July 2005, the day after his veto on the emergency contraception bill, he described himself in the Boston Globe opinion article as a "pro-life governor in a pro-choice state."
Ultimately, the Legislature overruled Romney's veto; in the days that followed, he was caught in a back-and-forth over whether all hospitals, including those with religious affiliations, should be required to offer the morning-after pill to rape victims. At first, Romney supported a religious exemption. But on the advice of his legal counsel, he later reversed himself.
"My personal view, in my heart of hearts," he said then, "is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information."
The debate foreshadowed the one that played out in Washington last week, when the Obama administration announced that it would require health plans — including those offered by religiously affiliated hospitals and universities — to cover birth control free of charge. The announcement brought social issues to the fore in a campaign that to date has focused on economic concerns. And again Romney found himself on the defensive, as Santorum mocked his "heart of hearts" remark.
"He said then that he believed ‘in his heart of hearts' that receiving these contraceptives — free of charge — trumped employees' religious consciences," Santorum wrote in an opinion article published in Politico. "Now, a few years later and running for president, his heart is strategically aligned with religious voters opposing this federal mandate."
Gingrich's campaign, too, sought to exploit Romney's past remarks.
"He just doesn't seem comfortable in his own skin when he explains how he became pro-life," said Kellyanne Conway, Gingrich's senior strategist and pollster.