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.

Look back at previous elections, and you’ll see the pattern. Several years ago, the National Right to Life Committee published a time line of exit polls from 1988 to 2002. For each election, the document calculated the “pro-life advantage”—the net gain for pro-life politicians (and the net loss for pro-choice politicians) based on their abortion positions. Year after year, more pro-lifers than pro-choicers made their voting decisions based on abortion. But one year is curiously absent from the time line: 1990. That was the year after the Supreme Court, in 1989, came close to overturning Roe v. Wade.

What happened in 1989? I’ve told the full story elsewhere, but here’s a summary. The court’s ruling scared pro-choice voters. Many more of them decided to make abortion a voting issue. They elected a black man governor of Virginia, which at that time was not just the cradle of the Confederacy but a reliably conservative state. That was nearly 20 years before the election of President Obama. A year later, in 1990 exit polls, the number of pro-choicers who made their voting decisions based on abortion exceeded the number of pro-lifers who did so. About 40 percent of people who voted on the issue said abortion should be legal in all cases. Thirty-two percent said it should be illegal in all cases, and the rest (which couldn’t be defined from the exit poll question) said it should be legal in some cases.

After the 1989 and 1990 elections, Republican politicians and party leaders turned tail. President George H.W. Bush dropped his annual plea to overturn Roe. When he was asked whether, in the case of his granddaughter theoretically getting pregnant, “the decision would be hers,” Bush meekly answered: “Who else’s could it be?” Vice President Dan Quayle gave a similar answer: “I respect my daughter’s decision. Others that have made a decision like that, I wish they hadn’t, but I’m not going to challenge their decision.”

Quayle was thought to be a devout pro-lifer. If the political beatings of 1989 and 1990 made him curl up in a fetal position, imagine what a pro-choice storm in 2012 would do to a weathervane like Romney.

It wouldn’t be hard to create such a storm. You don’t have to change anyone’s mind about abortion. You just have to get people who are already pro-choice to vote on the issue. If you look back at presidential exit polls from 1988 to 2000 (see page 29 of this compilation from the American Enterprise Institute), you’ll see a clear pattern. As the percentage of people who voted based on abortion goes up—7 to 9 to 12 to 14 to 33—the pro-life advantage goes down: 32 to 26 to 19 to 17 to 9. Ultimately, in the 1990 off-year election, the pro-life advantage became a pro-choice advantage. And when the advantage shifts, politicians follow.

When historians look back at this period, they’ll be amazed that we dawdled on climate change and nearly defaulted on our debt. But they’ll be equally amazed that the Republican Party, with impunity, waged an all-out war on Planned Parenthood, an organization dedicated to contraception and women’s health care. The GOP’s extremism on reproductive issues is the result of 20 years of not paying a price for it. And the insanity will continue until you make it stop.

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