Another clip (watch it here) shows Romney debating Democratic gubernatorial nominee Shannon O’Brien in October 2002. He uses the word “abortion” to describe Massachusetts law and his mother’s views, but never to characterize his own position. Twice, he promises not to change “our pro-choice laws in Massachusetts.” But the star of the show is a “woman’s right to choose.” Romney repeats that phrase seven times. I’m pretty sure that’s a world record.
Behind the scenes, Romney was even more ardent. He phoned the Republican Majority for Choice to request its endorsement. He exalted abortion rights in a questionnaire for Planned Parenthood. Responding to a NARAL survey, he wrote: “I respect and will protect a woman's right to choose. This choice is a deeply personal one. Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not mine and not the government's.” (You can read his answers to the NARAL survey here and his answers to the Planned Parenthood survey here.) In a meeting with three officers of Mass NARAL, the state chapter of the pro-choice group, he was asked what he would do as governor if Roe were overturned. Romney didn’t have to say anything about the merits of Roe, but he did anyway. He said overturning it would be a “serious mistake for our country.” He also said the right to choose shouldn’t be taken away. And he volunteered that he would be a helpful voice in the national GOP.
2002-04: The Embryo Wars
Most pro-life conversions start with God, fetal heartbeats, or sonograms. Romney’s conversion started with shapeless embryos in dishes.
In May 2002, while running for governor, Romney was invited to a Brandeis University forum on the science, policy, business, and ethics of research using human embryos. The research in question involved two technologies. The first of these, basic embryonic stem-cell research, was an effort to develop medical therapies using a process that required the destruction of very early human embryos, usually leftovers from in vitro fertilization. The second, cloning, also sought to develop stem-cell therapies, but it did so by creating new, customized embryos in petri dishes, instead of relying on IVF spares. A year earlier, President George W. Bush had condemned cloning and had restricted federal funding of stem-cell research to already-created cell lines.
Biotech was a hot new industry, and Boston was at the heart of it. The forum was sponsored by a biotech software company and featured the CEOs of two other biotech firms. Many executives were in the audience. Romney also had a personal stake in the issue: His wife, Ann, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. All their children were at risk. Stem-cell research could lead to treatments for the disease.
Romney was asked to join Steve Grossman, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, for a wide-ranging panel discussion at the forum. Romney demurred, arguing that the panel would be a premature election debate. Instead, he gave a speech focusing on the Massachusetts business climate, and he took no questions. His only comments on the issue at hand, according to the Boston Globe, were: "I am in favor of stem cell research. I will work and fight for stem cell research.” Romney also said of Bush, "I'd be happy to talk to [him] about this, though I don't know if I could budge him an inch."
Grossman, speaking after Romney, pointed out that Romney had sidestepped the question of cloning. Romney’s spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said Romney would soon declare a position on that issue. But no word came. In November, Romney was elected governor, and a month after that, a bill to authorize and fund embryonic stem-cell research, but not cloning, was filed in the legislature. The only response from the governor-elect’s office was, “Mitt Romney supports stem-cell research.”
Beyond his endorsement, Romney had nothing to say about these issues. Not in 2002 when he was elected, or in 2003 when he took office, or even in 2004. Long after Bush had declared stem-cell research a grave ethical problem, Romney ignored it, except to point out that he was more supportive than Bush. And yet, by 2006, Romney would claim that he had led the fight against cloning and had recognized embryo research as the moral challenge of his time.
The stem-cell bill filed in 2002 never got to Romney’s desk. In October 2003, Democratic leaders of the state Senate proposed to fund embryonic stem-cell research in an economic stimulus package. The state’s leading anti-abortion group, Massachusetts Citizens for Life, denounced the bill as an attempt to frame the research in “purely economic” terms. But Romney’s office seemed to support that framing. His aides welcomed the proposal and said it would maintain the state’s leadership in biotechnology. The only comment from Romney’s administration came from his director of economic development: “The governor feels that stem cell research may hold keys to treating the illness his wife has.”
By August 2004, embryonic stem-cell research was overwhelmingly popular. Two-thirds of Americans supported it. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, was pummeling Bush for restricting it. Romney sided with Kerry. Fehrnstrom said Romney “supports stem cell research on new and existing lines, in both private and federally funded settings." As to cloning, on which public opinion was more divided, Romney still wouldn’t talk. “We're not going to take a position on finer and finer gradations of this issue without giving it careful reflection and thought,” said Fehrnstrom. Romney also declined to take a position on morning-after pills, an issue on which he would later claim to be a leader.
But Romney was happy to bring up his differences with Bush. “There are other [issues] that we're a little further apart,” he pointed out in a TV interview during the 2004 Republican convention. “For instance, on stem cell research. I'm in favor of stem cell research both from existing lines, as well as new lines, and would support that with federal support.”
Romney was approaching the first stage of his conversion. As a presidential candidate in 2007, he would claim that he had changed on abortion not “as I began running for president, but rather, the first time as governor I faced a bill relating to the sanctity of human life, I came down on the side of life.” That’s a highly truncated version of his record. The full record shows that Romney ignored legislation relating to life for two years. He favored embryo-destructive research and opposed Bush’s restrictions. It’s true that Romney wasn’t forced to address these issues until February 2005. But by then, his presidential campaign was already taking shape. He was beginning to shift his sights from Massachusetts, which was pro-choice, to Republican voters in early presidential primary states, who were pro-life.
Romney, the son of a presidential candidate, had always aspired to the White House. In July 2004, his friends launched a proto-campaign organization, the Commonwealth PAC. Over the next four months, the PAC contributed money to scores of Republican candidates, notably in states with early primaries such as Iowa, South Carolina, and Michigan. In October 2004, Romney spoke at a Republican fundraising dinner in Iowa. He also traveled to Oklahoma to campaign for Rep. Ernest Istook, a leading Republican social conservative. Three weeks later, the Nov. 2 elections in Massachusetts crushed Romney’s hopes of adding Republicans to his legislature. The results made another run for governor unappealing.
November 2004 was the turning point in Romney’s political calculus. He had served two years as governor. He was beginning to build a network of allies in key presidential primary states. He was testing his message. And he recognized that he couldn’t run as a moderate, as his father had done in 1968. Romney was a Northeastern, Mormon technocrat in a party dominated by Southern evangelicals. He needed credibility with cultural conservatives.
November 2004: The Epiphany
It was at this moment that Romney saw the light. Here’s his version of what happened, as told to Redstate in September 2006:
My position changed during the stem-cell research debate. The provost of Harvard and the head of stem-cell research came into my office and at one point said that stem-cell research was not a moral issue because they killed the embryo at 14 days. And it hit me hard at that very moment that the Roe v. Wade philosophy had cheapened the value of human life. And I said to my chief of staff, who was with me in the meeting, as we came outside, “I am no longer content with the description of my position. I want to call myself pro-life.”
The meeting took place on Nov. 9, 2004. Every time Romney tells this story, the upshot is the same: At that moment, Romney saw a connection between cloning and abortion, and he resolved to declare himself pro-life.
The researcher who met with Romney that day, Doug Melton, has denied that he talked about killing embryos. But with the exception of the word killed, which Romney sometimes renders more accurately as destroyed, I think the incident happened pretty much as Romney describes it. Romney’s chief of staff, Beth Myers, and his deputy chief of staff, Peter Flaherty, witnessed the exchange. Harvard’s stem-cell rules prohibit “in vitro culture of any intact human embryo … for longer than 14 days,” which means embryos had to be destroyed at that point. I’ve heard other stem-cell researchers brush off ethical questions about such early embryos. And if you watch Melton respond to moral concerns about his research, as he does in this video (skip to the 72nd minute), you’ll notice how blandly he dismisses these concerns as illogical. It’s more a matter of demeanor than of substance. But it’s easy to see how Romney could have been chilled.
The incident certainly jarred Romney. Bill Hurlbut, a Stanford ethicist who met with Romney three months later, remembers the governor bringing it up. Everything Romney said in the months after the November meeting, privately and publicly, suggests that he was sincerely troubled by cloning and was thinking carefully about how to draw ethical boundaries around embryo research.
The problem with Romney’s story lies not in its core but in the larger narrative Romney later wove around it. How did a meeting about stem-cell research lead to a broad and yet strangely selective pro-life conversion? How did Romney get from cloning to abortion and morning-after pills without changing his position on the underlying question of embryo destruction? Why would a man who had accepted abortion rights despite his experience as a pro-life abortion counselor—and who had paid almost no attention to partial-birth abortion, the bloody, raging late-term abortion controversy of his day—renounce abortion based on a conversation about microscopic embryos? And why doesn’t the record of Romney’s words and deeds after November 2004 fit his account of a sweeping pro-life conversion? Logically, emotionally, and factually, almost nothing about his story stands up to examination.
If Romney told Myers on Nov. 9 that he would henceforth declare himself pro-life, there’s no record of him following through with any statement, act, or change of position. A day after the meeting, a Romney spokeswoman refused to tell the Globe whether Romney supported embryonic stem-cell research.
Romney’s tale, which he has told repeatedly to pro-lifers as a presidential candidate, is that after the Nov. 9 meeting, he took a stand against killing embryos for research. According to press releases from his 2008 presidential campaign, he “opposed efforts to advance embryo-destructive research in Massachusetts” and “vetoed a state stem cell bill that would have permitted embryo-destructive research.” In December 2011, Romney claimed in a debate that after studying cloning as governor, he had decided he “could not sign on to take human life.”