How, when, and why Mitt Romney changed his mind on abortion.
Stills from CSPAN.
What’s significant about Romney’s history through 1994 is how little it resembles his later descriptions of his pro-choice years. Since 2006, Romney has been running as a pro-lifer in the Republican presidential primaries. He has made three claims about his past: that he never called himself pro-choice, that his defense of abortion rights was philosophical rather than political, and that until 2004, the issue was just an abstraction to him. None of these claims is true.
The highlight of Romney’s 1994 campaign was his Oct. 25 debate with Kennedy. Ten minutes into the debate, a panelist asked Romney how he could reconcile his defense of abortion rights with his personal opposition to abortion. Romney gave the abstract answer: Personal beliefs shouldn’t be imposed on others. Kennedy then used his rebuttal to call Romney “multiple choice.” The moderator was ready to move on. But Romney asked for extra time, and he used that time to tell Ann Keenan’s story:
Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. 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. And you will not see me wavering on that.
This was no soundbite. It was a poignant, personal story, and Romney was telling it to connect with pro-choice voters on a gut level. He was showing them that choice wasn’t just an abstraction to him, that he had felt the pain of criminalized abortion and for that reason could be trusted to keep abortion legal. He looked completely sincere. You can watch the video here.
Now watch the video of Romney 13 years later, appearing on Meet the Press as a pro-life presidential candidate. “It was quite theoretical and philosophical to consider what the role of government should be in this regard,” he tells Tim Russert. “And then I became governor, and the theoretical became reality.” In the interview, Romney describes how, after being elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, he came face to face for the first time with the reality of taking unborn life. In other interviews, Romney has dismissed his pre-2004 acquaintance with these issues as “abstract.”
Romney wants to persuade pro-lifers that the pro-choice position he took in 1994 was based on ignorance. Had he known the reality of abortion firsthand, he would have stood for life. But Romney did know the reality of abortion. He knew it from Sandy Catalano, Carrel Sheldon, and possibly other women he had counseled. And he knew it from Ann Keenan.
Looking at the 1994 and 2007 videos, it’s hard to know which Romney to believe. The transformation they convey is more than a change of mind. It’s a rewriting of emotional experience, or at least what was advertised as emotional experience. Was Romney telling the truth in 1994 when he described how Ann Keenan’s death had shaken his family? Or was he telling the truth in 2007 when he told Tim Russert that abortion was only theoretical to him until he became governor? How can you forget or minimize something you portrayed as so wrenching? How can one man be real unless the other is acting?
That isn’t the only thing Romney blacked out between 1994 and 2007. On June 12, 1994, he and his wife, Ann, attended a Planned Parenthood fundraiser at the home of a Republican activist in Massachusetts. In May 2007, somebody outed the Romneys for having written a $150 check to Planned Parenthood, presumably for attending the event. The check, signed by Ann, was from their joint account. At this point, only the check was public. Reporters hadn’t yet learned about the event. Mitt Romney responded by attributing the check to Ann: "Her contributions are for her and not for me, and her positions I do not think are terribly relevant to my campaign." (You can watch Romney’s answer on video here.) Six months later, a photo of Mitt at the event turned up. Did he not remember being there? Or was it just easier to pin the check on his wife and hope nobody found out more?
Nothing in Romney’s evolving autobiography is more misleading than his claim that he never called himself pro-choice. During the 2008 presidential race, Romney told Fox News: “I never called myself pro-choice. I never allowed myself to use the word pro-choice because I didn't feel I was pro-choice. I would protect the law, I said, as it was, but I wasn't pro-choice.” (You can watch that clip here.) Romney has even dared his doubters to “go back to YouTube and look at what I said in 1994.”
Let’s do that. Let’s go back and look at what Romney said in 1994. In fact, let’s go back further.
When Romney was formulating his abortion position in 1993, Bill Clinton was president. Al Gore was vice president. Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator, was the darling of the state’s independent voters. (Romney had voted for Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, though he suggested later that he had done this to help the GOP.) Bill Weld, the governor of Massachusetts, was the golden boy of Northeastern Republicans.
Clinton, Gore, Tsongas, and Weld—four of the most important people in Massachusetts politics at the time—had one thing in common: “a woman’s right to choose.” They hammered that phrase in speeches, rallies, and debates. (You can watch examples here, here, here, and here.) The most famous statement—and one Romney almost certainly watched—was Weld’s declaration to the 1992 Republican convention: “Individual freedom should extend to a woman's right to choose. I want the government out of your pocketbook and your bedroom.”
Pro-choice strategists recommended the terms pro-choice and “a woman’s right to choose” for the same reason pro-lifers hated these terms: They obscured the ugly subject matter. Most people didn’t like abortion, but they did like choice. In his 1994 campaign, Romney used the words choice and choose in precisely this way. In May 1994, when the Boston Herald asked him about abortion, he talked instead about “choice legislation.” Two days later, in a debate, he said, “I support a woman's right to choose.” In September, Romney’s spokesman told reporters, “Mitt has always been consistent in his pro-choice position.” In October, when the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League called Romney a fake pro-choicer, the candidate shot back: “I don't think it's NARAL's position to say who's pro-choice and who's not pro-choice.”
Whether Romney ever said “I’m pro-choice” is beside the point. What’s obvious is that he used the language of choice and choose to signal his commitment to abortion rights.
He also embraced Roe v. Wade. Contrary to the story he now tells—that he accepted Roe only because “the Supreme Court had spoken”—Romney argued in his debate with Kennedy that Americans “should sustain and support” Roe. For Mormons, sustain has special meaning. The church’s 12th Article of Faith exalts “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” To sustain others means “to uphold, to support, to assist” them. Romney was making a solemn commitment. On another occasion during the 1994 campaign, Romney said of Roe, “I want it to remain the law of the land.” And he endorsed the core of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would have preserved Roe rights in federal law in case the decision were overturned.
Al Bello/Getty Images.
1999-2001: The Utah Detour
Romney lost the 1994 race and resumed his business career. Then his life took an unexpected turn. In 1999, he went to Utah to take charge of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Utah was a completely different state. Massachusetts was overwhelmingly pro-choice. Utah was overwhelmingly pro-life. "When I am asked if am I pro-choice or pro-life, I say I refuse to accept either label,” Romney told the Salt Lake Tribune in February 1999.
Romney espoused the same position he had taken in Massachusetts—anti-abortion, pro-choice—but reversed his emphasis. In Massachusetts, he had downplayed his moral discomfort with abortion as the universally shared (and therefore non-decisive) background against which he stood for choice. As he put it in 1994: “Everyone or almost everyone opposes abortion on a personal level. But I don't believe that it's appropriate to legislate one's personal view for the entire country.” But in Utah, he portrayed freedom of choice as mere legal background for the moral question:
The question is what is the choice. I am in favor of the women of America having the opportunity to make the right choice by providing support and care for those who want to take the child to full term and put it up for adoption. And providing information and counseling to people trying to make that decision. … The right choice is very much to bring that child to full term. Abortion is the wrong choice.
In July 2001, Romney told the Tribune that he expected to run for office after the Olympics and that he would examine Utah as an option. The Tribune, apparently taking its cue from Romney’s abortion-rights position in Massachusetts, described the would-be candidate as “pro-choice.” Romney—who had said nothing in Massachusetts when his spokesman called him “pro-choice,” and who had protested NARAL’s refusal to apply the term to him in 1994—now reacted very differently. “I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice,” he wrote in a letter to the Tribune. “I have never felt comfortable with the labels associated with the abortion issue.”
2002: The Race for Governor
Soon, however, a political path opened for Romney in Massachusetts, and he returned there to run for governor. As in 1994, his advisers made clear he would have to run as a pro-choicer to win. He took that advice with gusto. Announcing his candidacy on March 19, 2002, he pledged, “I will protect the right of a woman to choose.” Two weeks later, in his address to the Massachusetts Republican convention, he declared: “Believing in people is protecting their freedom to make their own life choices, even if their choice is different than yours. That choice is a deeply personal one, and the women of our state should make it based on their beliefs, not mine, not the government’s.”
To appreciate how avidly Romney reabsorbed and deployed pro-choice language in 2002, you have to watch him in action. One clip (watch it here) shows him seated with his wife on a sofa, assuring women that they need not fear him on social issues. He tells the interviewer: “So when asked, ‘Will I preserve and protect a woman's right to choose?’ I make an unequivocal answer: yes.”
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.