Romney Isn’t an Abortion Extremist. He’s a Weathervane.

How you look at things.
Aug. 23 2012 3:49 PM

The Abortion Weathervane

Mitt Romney isn’t an extremist. He’s a symptom of your failure to make reproductive health a voting issue.

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Opponents are trying to portray Mitt Romney as an extremist on abortion

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/GettyImages.

According to President Obama’s campaign, Mitt Romney is an abortion extremist. “Romney backed a proposal to outlaw all abortion, even in cases of rape and incest,” says the Obama campaign. He “supports the Republican Party platform, which … bans abortion without those exceptions.” He’s “in lockstep” with Rep. Todd Akin, R-Missouri, who thinks abortion should be illegal even in cases of what Akin calls “legitimate” rape.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The good news, if you’re pro-choice, is that this isn’t true. Romney has never believed that abortion should be outlawed in cases of rape or incest. I’ve done a thorough analysis of his record on this issue, which you can read here. Far from pushing an extreme pro-life agenda, Romney has ducked the issue whenever possible. And when forced to take a stand, he has always picked the position least likely to get him in political trouble. Sometimes he has posed as a pro-lifer. Sometimes he has posed as a pro-choicer. He’s not an extremist. He’s a weathervane.

But that’s the bad news, too. Several of the Obama campaign’s allegations about Romney are absolutely true. He does favor a ban on most abortions. He does intend to zero out federal funding for Planned Parenthood. He does propose to give employers the right to exclude from their employees' health coverage not just abortion, but contraception too. Romney has taken these positions not because he cares passionately about them, but because he can get away with them. The support he gets from pro-lifers on these issues outweighs the support he loses from pro-choicers.

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The problem for pro-choicers isn’t that Romney is an extremist. The problem is that his pivot to the right tells you which way the wind is blowing. If you’re pro-choice, and you don’t vote on this issue, you’re the reason the wind is blowing the other way. You have failed to make politicians suffer for pursuing anti-abortion and anti-contraceptive policies. You have created Mitt Romney. And there will be more Romneys, year after year, until you punish them at the polls.

If you don’t want to read the long version of Romney’s record, I’ll give you the short version. In 1993, when he was preparing to run for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, he took a poll. The poll told him he’d lose unless he was pro-choice. So he ran as a pro-choicer. In fact, he used the poll to persuade leaders of the Mormon Church that he had to run as a pro-choicer. Then, six years later, when he was living in Utah (a pro-life state) and thinking about running for office there, he repositioned himself as a pro-lifer. Then, when the governorship of Massachusetts opened up in 2002, he repositioned himself as a pro-choicer. Then, as he prepared to seek the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, he repositioned himself as a pro-lifer. At every turn, he has taken the position that looked safest politically.

Romney does think abortion is wrong. There’s a long record of him expressing that view. But he doesn’t think every fetus has a right to life. He’s a cultural pro-lifer. He shares the Mormon hierarchy’s view that society should generally have fewer abortions because abortion is “like unto” killing, not identical to it. That’s why, like church leaders, Romney supports exceptions for rape or incest. In past incarnations, he has even endorsed the church’s moral exception for “severe birth abnormality.”

How has Romney managed to run as a pro-choicer while opposing abortion? Because morality and legality are two different things. You can believe that abortion is generally wrong and still be pro-choice. Or, while acknowledging that you wish there were no more abortions, you can send clear signals that you won’t mess with abortion’s legality. Those are the two evasive maneuvers that Republican politicians have adopted in the past when they feared a pro-choice backlash at the polls.

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