How, when, and why Mitt Romney changed his mind on abortion.
Romney’s media adviser, Mike Murphy, had a blunt explanation for the governor’s reticence. "He's been a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly,” Murphy told National Review in an interview published June 2. Murphy issued a pseudo-retraction, and the next day, Romney said his position hadn’t changed. When reporters asked Romney to lay out his views on abortion and Roe, the governor refused, saying, "I don't want to get into a philosophical discussion of a federal law and a case that's been in the books for 30 years and that is distracting from my agenda."
Joe Raedle/Getty Images.
Seven months after Romney’s purported epiphany, that’s how he saw abortion: as a distraction. But the pressure wouldn’t let up. The legislature was preparing to send Romney a bill that would facilitate the distribution of morning-after pills. Essentially, the pills were high-dose oral contraceptives. Taken after intercourse, they could prevent pregnancy by blocking ovulation, fertilization, or—theoretically—the uterine implantation of a very early embryo. The bill would require hospital emergency rooms in Massachusetts to offer the pills to rape victims. It would also allow pharmacists to give the pills to women, including minors, without a prescription. Romney had refused to comment on the bill in June 2004 and again in April 2005. But now it was headed for his desk.
On June 16, 2005, the state Senate passed the bill. Three weeks later, the House followed. Pro-life groups clamored for a veto, arguing that the pills could kill embryos and that Romney had promised in 2002 not to change the state’s abortion laws. The problem for Romney was that morning-after pills were a cross between contraception, abortion, and stem-cell research. Like abortion, they could terminate life inside a woman’s body, at least hypothetically. Like stem-cell research, they could affect only pre-implantation embryos. Romney had to choose.
On July 25, he made his choice. He vetoed the bill, and he declared himself pro-life. Or so he would later claim. Once again, the truth is more complicated.
July 2005: The Declaration
On July 26, 2005, a day after he vetoed legislation to dispense morning-after pills, Romney published an op-ed in the Globe explaining his decision. Ever since, he has cited this op-ed as his declaration of conversion to the cause of life. To this day, the op-ed stands as the clearest portrait of who Romney was during this transition. But it doesn’t show a man acting on a change of belief. It shows a man orchestrating a change of identity.
The first problem with the op-ed was that Romney plainly didn’t believe in the principle he offered as his basis for the veto. Here’s the reason he gave:
The bill does not involve only the prevention of conception: The drug it authorizes would also terminate life after conception. Signing such a measure into law would violate the promise I made to the citizens of Massachusetts when I ran for governor. I pledged that I would not change our abortion laws either to restrict abortion or to facilitate it.
In recent years, Romney has stuck to this story. Earlier this month, he told the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference that the 2005 bill “would have allowed young girls to obtain access to abortion-inducing drugs.” But if Romney had actually believed this in 2005—that the termination of life any time after conception was abortion—he would have changed his position on stem-cell research. The embryos destroyed to make stem-cell lines were developmentally equivalent to any embryo that might be affected by a morning-after pill. In either scenario, the fatal intervention took place after conception and before implantation. Yet Romney supported legislation in 2005 to authorize and fund embryonic stem-cell research. By his definition, that was a change in the law to facilitate abortions. In the op-ed, Romney didn’t change this position or even mention it. That’s because, contrary to what he told CPAC, he didn’t seriously believe that destroying a pre-implanted embryo was abortion.
To anyone who genuinely believed in the sanctity of life from conception, the stem-cell research Romney supported was much harder to justify than the pills he opposed. Morning-after pills were basically contraceptives. They suppressed ovulation and fertilization. Theoretically, it was possible that a pill could fail to stop ovulation and fertilization and yet somehow succeed in blocking implantation. But that risk was unclear, unsubstantiated, and deeply implausible. Embryonic stem-cell research, as practiced in 2005, was exactly the opposite. Without exception, it required the destruction of an embryo.
The second problem in the op-ed was Romney’s lame attempt to draw a connection from cloning to abortion. The obvious argument for stem-cell research, as opposed to morning-after pills, was that the research might help cure diseases. This was an argument for using embryos, not for protecting them. But Romney didn’t make that argument. In fact, he attacked it as cold and ruthless. And the strange thing was, he didn’t attack it by going after embryo research. He attacked it by going after abortion. He wrote: “In considering the issue of embryo cloning and embryo farming, I saw where the harsh logic of abortion can lead—to the view of innocent new life as nothing more than research material or a commodity to be exploited.”
This was Romney’s first effort to tell a story that would explain how the cloning debate had led him to a change of heart on abortion. But the story made no sense. What did abortion have to do with treating unborn life as research material? Women didn’t get abortions to create research material, much less sell it. If Romney was concerned about life being reduced to research material, the first issue he would have reconsidered after cloning was stem-cell research. And perhaps, from there, his reflections would have progressed to abortion. But there’s no way he could have gotten from cloning to abortion without going through stem-cell research. Romney’s train of thought wasn’t following the track of logic. It was following something else.
The third problem was Romney’s wildly implausible change of heart on Roe. He said he now opposed that ruling. This was the only substantive change of position he announced on abortion in the op-ed. He wrote that his pro-life convictions had “evolved and deepened” as governor, in part because he had “observed the bitterness and fierce anger that still linger 32 years after Roe v. Wade. The majority in the US Supreme Court's  Casey opinion assured us this would pass away as Americans learned to live with abortion on demand. But this has proved a false hope.”
What made this account preposterous was that Romney’s evolution hadn’t taken 32 years. It had taken 54 days. On June 3, seven months after his pro-life epiphany, he had brushed off Roe as “a case that's been in the books for 30 years and that is distracting from my agenda.” Yet somehow, in the seven weeks since then, he had been overcome by the ruling’s 32-year legacy of bitterness and anger.
The holes in Romney’s story—his abrupt recasting of Roe, his baffling segue from cloning to abortion, his continued support for killing embryos in dishes—fit the pattern of his behavior since November 2004. I want to call myself pro-life. He was looking to change his identity, not his policies. For unknown reasons—maybe it was the political calendar, or maybe his hand was forced by the bill on morning-after pills—he decided to cement this change of identity in July 2005. He used the bill at hand as his peg, reconstructed his Nov. 9 meeting as an abortion epiphany, and reworked his feelings about Roe over the years. Now he was a real pro-lifer.
Or was he?
Romney’s new position, as described in the op-ed, was that “states, through the democratic process, should determine their own abortion laws. … A federalist approach would allow such disputes to be settled by the citizens and elected representatives of each state, and appropriately defer to democratic governance.” This approach would empower a governor like Romney to pursue pro-life legislation.
But Romney refused to use that power. “Because Massachusetts is decidedly prochoice, I have respected the state's democratically held view,” he wrote. “I have not attempted to impose my own views on the prochoice majority.”
This wasn’t a governor seeking to create a “pro-life state,” as Romney would later describe his record. It wasn’t even deference to the people and their elected representatives. It was the state’s highest elected representative deferring to the people. To put it less kindly, it was a politician bowing to polls—on what he termed an issue of life—and passing off his capitulation as an act of principle.
The principle, according to Romney, was that when he ran for governor in 2002, “I pledged that I would not change our abortion laws either to restrict abortion or to facilitate it.” But that wasn’t what Romney had pledged in 2002. Take another look at what he told the Massachusetts Republican convention that year:
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.
This wasn’t a neutral pledge to leave the laws alone. Nor was it a pledge to preserve choice just because the majority wanted it. It was a pledge to preserve choice because the candidate believed in it.
Candidate Romney doubled down on that commitment in his debate with Democratic nominee Shannon O’Brien on Oct. 29, 2002. O’Brien accused Romney of faking his pro-choice persona to fit Massachusetts. As evidence, she observed that he had behaved differently a year earlier: “When he went to Utah and was thinking about running for governor of the state of Utah, he made a point of writing a letter to the editor to the Utah paper up there, specifically stating he was not pro-choice.”
In the debate, Romney answered O’Brien by invoking his mother:
My position has been the same throughout my political career. And it goes back to the days of 1970. There was a woman who was running for political office, U.S. Senate. She took a very bold and courageous stand in 1970, and that was in a conservative state. That was that a woman should have the right to make her own choice as to whether or not to have an abortion. Her name was Lenore Romney. She was my mom. Even though she lost, she established a record of courage in that regard. She had very strong personal beliefs about what decision she would make for herself and her family if offered to make that choice. But she also made it clear that she thought a woman should have her own right to choose and believed in the separation of church and state. I have held that view consistently.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.