How, when, and why Mitt Romney changed his mind on abortion.
That’s just false. Here’s what really happened. At the time of the Nov. 9 meeting, a 30-year-old Massachusetts statute defined “unborn child” as human life after fertilization. This made every research embryo an “unborn child,” potentially triggering prosecution. On Feb. 9, 2005, Bob Travaglini, the Democratic president of the Massachusetts Senate, filed legislation that would solve this problem by redefining “unborn child” to mean human life after implantation in a uterus. The bill would legalize cloning as well as research on spare IVF embryos.
The next day, Romney sent a letter to Travaglini. The letter’s purpose was to make clear that while Romney opposed cloning, he supported other embryo-destructive research. “Massachusetts law should be amended to allow research on existing embryonic stem cell lines, consistent with President Bush's federal policy,” Romney wrote. “Our law should also allow research on stem cells taken from surplus embryos created as part of an in vitro fertilization process if they would otherwise be discarded.”
This was a perfectly reasonable position. But it wasn’t the position Romney now tells pro-lifers he stood for. Romney stood with them against cloning—the creation of new embryos—but he advocated changing the law to permit the destruction of spare embryos. He endorsed what was, by his current rhetorical standards, the taking of human life.
A week after sending his letter to Travaglini, Romney met with Hurlbut, the Stanford ethicist, in the governor’s office. With the bluntness of a CEO, Romney interrogated Hurlbut to nail down the exact point in cloning or fertilization at which a new human organism could be said to exist. (You can watch Romney describe the conversation two years later in this video.) Romney impressed Hurlbut with his probing questions and logical mind. The ethicist came away with the clear impression that the governor was pro-life.
And yet, Romney’s public position didn’t change. On Feb. 21, 2005, three days after his meeting with Hurlbut, Romney went to South Carolina to speak at a Republican dinner. The speech, aired on C-SPAN’s Road to the White House, was Romney’s first attempt to present himself as a cultural conservative. He talked about the importance of religion and the perils of gay marriage, which had invaded Massachusetts. And then he brought up cloning. “Science must respect the sanctity of human life,” he said. “The creation of life for destruction is simply wrong."
Romney’s audience applauded. He was learning the language of life, just as he had once learned the language of choice. But again, there was a strange emptiness in his words. He didn’t say the destruction of life was wrong. Indeed, he supported that destruction, in the form of research on spare embryos. Nor did he mention abortion. In fact, Romney’s staff couldn’t explain what his position was. “Some aides say he is clearly pro-choice,” wrote veteran South Carolina reporter Lee Bandy. “Others claim they have been led to believe otherwise.”
If this was a conversion, it was a curious one. Romney’s epiphany seemed to have affected his political self-presentation more than his policies. His flash of insight in the Nov. 9 meeting—it hit me hard at that very moment that the Roe v. Wade philosophy had cheapened the value of human life—had somehow failed to inspire him to say anything against Roe or abortion rights, which, as far as anyone knew, he still supported. And this matched Romney’s Nov. 9 statement to Myers: I am no longer content with the description of my position. I want to call myself pro-life. Romney had meant exactly what he said. He wasn’t changing his position. He was changing his language.
On Feb. 28, a week after his trip to South Carolina, Romney went to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the National Governors Association. There, in a hotel coffee shop, he was pressed by Washington Post reporters Dan Balz and Ruth Marcus to explain his abortion position. Romney said that he was “personally pro-life” but that he would honor his 2002 pledge not to change his state’s abortion laws. When Marcus asked Romney whether abortion should be illegal, he clammed up. “That's the furthest I'm going to take you right now,” Romney said. “I'm running for governor of Massachusetts, and I'm telling you exactly what I will do as governor of Massachusetts. But I'm not going to tell you what I'd do as mayor of Boston or as congressman, ’cause I’m not in those positions.” (You can listen to a recording of the conversation here.)
A month later, Romney spurned another invitation to renounce Roe. On March 22, his office issued a ritual proclamation honoring Eisenstadt v. Baird, the 1972 Supreme Court ruling that had struck down a Massachusetts law against distributing birth control to unmarried people. The proclamation had been issued every year, but this time, the usual mention of Roe was missing. Reporters asked Romney’s spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, whether the omission meant anything. Fehrnstrom said no. As a general rule, he explained, rulings other than the one being honored had been removed as extraneous.
Win McNamee/Getty Images.
March-May 2005: A Donor’s Right to Choose
In a March 6 Globe op-ed, a March 8 press conference, and a March 30 radio ad, Romney repeated his endorsement of stem-cell research. “I support legislation that will permit scientists to obtain stem cells from embryos donated from fertility clinics,” Romney said in the ad. Reporters struggled to make sense of his views. On May 22, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked Romney: “You don't see, as I understand it, the use of these leftover embryos in fertility clinics as destroying life?” Romney replied:
That's right. I believe that when a couple gets together and decides that they want to bring a child into the Earth, and they go to a fertility clinic to do so, and if there’s going to be through that process a leftover embryo or two, that they should be able to decide whether to preserve that embryo for future use or to destroy it; to have it put up for adoption or potentially to be used for research and experimentation, hopefully leading to the cure of disease. … If, on the other hand, embryos are going to be destroyed following a fertilization process, that's something which shouldn't be done without the parent of that particular embryo being able to be brought into the decision. And if they want to give that embryo to science for the potential cure of disease, that that's a positive thing.
If you want to understand what was going on in Romney’s head during this period, these are his most illuminating remarks. Let’s start at the top: bring a child into the Earth. That’s a strange way of describing procreation, unless you’re a Mormon. In Mormon cosmology, when you procreate, you aren’t making a new soul. You’re making a new body that will host a preexisting, everlasting soul. You’re bringing a “spirit child” to this planet.
This makes Mormonism different from Catholicism. In official Catholic teaching, soul and body begin at the same moment: conception. You mustn’t destroy a single-celled embryo, any more than you’d kill a baby. But in Mormonism, it’s possible to believe that a very early embryo in a dish hasn’t yet received a soul. You can argue, for example, that the preexisting spirit doesn’t enter the embryo until the embryo implants in the womb. That’s one reason why pro-life Mormons in the U.S. Senate have supported embryonic stem-cell research.
As a former Mormon bishop and stake president, Romney knew this teaching well. "Life, from a scientific standpoint, begins at conception," he told reporters in January 2006. But he added: "I don't know when the soul, if you're religious, when the soul enters the body. My church doesn't teach that, by the way—doesn't have an opinion on it."
The second oddity in the interview is Romney’s persistent emphasis on the rights of IVF parents: They should be able to decide whether to preserve that embryo for future use or to destroy it; to have it put up for adoption … that's something which shouldn't be done without the parent of that particular embryo being able to be brought into the decision.
Politicians generally don’t talk this way about stem-cell research. Politicians who support stem-cell research talk about curing diseases. Politicians who oppose it talk about the sanctity of life. Almost no politician focuses on the rights of parents, as opposed to labs or clinics. But Romney did. Why?
The answer, I think, is that Romney had personal experience with IVF. Scott, in his book, reports that three of Romney’s five sons have used IVF. When I pressed Scott for details, he told me he has confirmed this information with their friends and relatives and with fellow congregants who heard it directly from those concerned. To protect the privacy of the parents and children involved, Scott refused to tell me which sons. But he did answer one question: According to his sources, the Romney sons and daughters-in-law who used IVF were having trouble getting pregnant at all.
I cross-checked this information against reported births in the Romney family. Romney has 16 grandchildren. Eight were born before November 2004: three from Tagg Romney, three from Matt Romney, and two from Josh Romney. At least one of these three Romney sons has to be among the three who used IVF. Given Scott’s information—that IVF was used to establish the initial pregnancies of the couples involved, and that several of Mitt Romney’s grandchildren had been born this way as of 2011—it’s virtually certain that Romney had at least one IVF grandchild by November 2004.
When Scott tried to ask the Romneys about their use of IVF and how it squared with Romney’s views on life issues, they cut off cooperation with him. Three months ago, the Romney campaign refused to answer similar questions from Politico. Earlier this month, I asked the campaign in writing, twice, about the family’s IVF experience. The campaign didn’t respond to my questions or to follow-up phone calls. If a denial were coming, we’d have heard it by now.
When you put these two pieces of the Romney jigsaw puzzle next to each other, it’s obvious that they fit together. Romney’s IVF experience explains his donor-oriented comments about stem-cell research. And his comments, in turn, show the effects of his experience. Romney understood the blessings and quandaries of this technology. He saw the issue from the couple’s perspective.
Once Romney took that perspective, he had a ready-made framework for thinking and talking about the couple’s rights. Look at the options he enumerated in his May 22 interview with Chris Wallace: gestation, termination, adoption. Look at his language: They should be able to decide. Romney was still pro-choice. But now he was pro-choice about a question closer to home: what to do with spare IVF embryos.
Cloning of new embryos was different. In cloning, there was no parental perspective to defend. Embryos were produced impersonally, even industrially, and this dismayed Romney. “Imagine row after row of laboratory racks, filled with growing human embryos,” he wrote in his March 6 op-ed. When legislators refused to remove cloning from Travaglini’s bill, Romney vetoed the bill. The governor knew they would override him. And in late May, they did.
At this point, Romney was pro-stem-cell research, anti-cloning, and opaque on abortion. In an interview published in USA Today on May 23, 2005, he again called himself “personally pro-life" but refused to clarify those words. “I don't want to be confusing to people in my state,” he pleaded. At a press conference on May 27, Romney continued to duck questions. “My personal philosophical views about this issue,” he said, would only “distract from what I think is a more critical agenda” on jobs and education. (You can watch his remarks here.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.