To understand Mitt Romney, you have to understand the most difficult passage of his political life: how he changed his position on abortion. Not the story he tells about it, but the real story.
Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.
Romney began his political career as a pro-choicer. In the story he tells, he had an epiphany, a flash of insight, and committed himself thereafter to protecting life. But that isn’t what happened. The real story of Romney’s conversion—a series of tentative, equivocal, and confused shifts, accompanied by a constant rewriting of his past—paints a more accurate picture of who he is. Romney has complex views and a talent for framing them either way, depending on his audience. He values truth, so he makes sure there’s an element of it in everything he says. He can’t stand to break his promises, so he reinterprets them.
Parts of the story have been told before. But no one has put it together. And no one has assembled the many video and audio clips that bear witness to what happened. In this article, the first complete examination of Romney’s journey, you’ll see his transformation on camera. (You can also watch a video narration.)
When you see the story in its full context, three things become clear. First, this was no flip-flop. Romney is a man with many facets, groping his way through a series of fluid positions on an array of difficult issues. His journey isn’t complete. It never will be. Second, for Romney, abortion was never really a policy question. He didn’t want to change the law. What he wanted to change was his identity. And third, the malleability at Romney’s core is as much about his past as about his future. Again and again, he has struggled to make sense not just of what he should do, but of who he has been. The problem with Romney isn’t that he keeps changing his mind. The problem is that he keeps changing his story.
Watch: Romney's Abortion Record: Spin vs. Truth
1963-83: The Early Years
Romney’s family had its first, fatal brush with abortion in 1963. Romney was 16. His father was the governor of Michigan. Mitt’s sister was married to a young man with a 21-year-old sister who was pregnant. The pregnant young woman, Ann Keenan, desperately wanted an abortion. But abortion was illegal in Michigan. So Keenan tried an illegal abortion. She bled to death. (For more on Keenan’s death and other important episodes, see this short bibliography of the best reporting on Romney’s abortion history.)
It’s unclear what Mitt Romney knew about this tragedy at the time. (Romney, his advisers, and his press office did not respond to emails, phone calls, or written questions for this article.) Though he would later recall Keenan as a “dear, close family relative that was very close to me,” the cause of Ann Keenan’s death was hidden from her friends, and Romney’s later descriptions of the episode leave open the possibility that he learned about the abortion later. But Romney’s mother, Lenore Romney, apparently knew the truth. It affected what she preached within the family and what she espoused as an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate in Michigan in 1970.
Like other moderates of her day, Lenore Romney didn’t believe in an absolute right to choose. During her campaign, she remarked, “I’m so tired of hearing the argument that a woman should have the final word on what happens to her own body. This is a life.” But Mrs. Romney did think current abortion laws were too restrictive. Her platform said: “I support and recognize the need for more liberal abortion rights while reaffirming the legal and medical measures needed to protect the unborn and pregnant woman.”
The Romneys were Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught that abortion was “like unto” murder but wasn’t quite the same thing. The church’s official Handbook forbids abortion for “personal or social convenience” but permits it in cases of rape, incest, health risks to the mother, or “severe defects” in the fetus. This was the general guidance Mitt Romney followed in 1981, when, at age 34, he became a Mormon bishop.
At the time, Romney lived in Belmont, Mass. and was a vice president at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm. In his part-time role as a lay bishop, he was responsible for counseling members of his ward, or congregation. In 1982, he visited the hospital bed of Sandy Catalano, a church member with a potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy. Catalano feared Romney would rebuke her for seeking an abortion. Instead, Romney brought her compassion and the church’s approval. "He could see my anguish and my pain and gave me a blessing of comfort,” Catalano later told the Los Angeles Times. “I felt this peace wash over me.”
In a 1983 case, Romney responded differently. Carrel Hilton Sheldon, a mother of five, was pregnant again. She couldn’t bear the idea of another child. She wanted an abortion but, by Mormon standards, had no good excuse for it. According to the story she later told in Exponent II, a Mormon feminist journal, doctors then discovered that she had a health-endangering blood clot, but they decided that an abortion wasn’t absolutely necessary to save her life. Romney came to her hospital room and, as she described it, “regaled me with stories of his sister and her retarded child and what a blessing that child had been to the family. He told me that ‘as your bishop, my concern is with the child.’ ” Sheldon’s father, in an interview with Ron Scott, the author of Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics, says Romney followed his hospital visit by going to Sheldon’s house and telling her parents he was concerned “for that little child who is battling for life here on this planet.”
1993: The Wirthlin Poll
In 1986, Romney became president of the church’s Boston stake, overseeing a dozen wards. Seven years later, while still in that pastoral role, he began to think about running against Sen. Ted Kennedy. Romney approached the idea as he had always approached things: with a businessman’s prudence. He hired Republican pollster Dick Wirthlin to survey the Massachusetts electorate and identify challenges Romney might face. Scott, a friend of the Romney family, reports in his book that Wirthlin came back with tough news: No pro-life candidate could win statewide office in Massachusetts.
Until this moment, Romney hadn’t taken a public position on abortion. He had pro-life experience as a Mormon leader and counselor. He had pro-choice experience as the relative of a woman who had died from illegal abortion. In general, he respected women, and he didn’t like government telling people what to do. Within the Romney family, his mother had preached the separation of religious practice from public policy. Mormons, having suffered persecution at the hands of other Christians, feared the injection of sectarian faith into politics. The LDS church also had a doctrine of free agency that distinguished the rightness of choices, such as whether to drink alcohol, from the freedom to make those choices.
Above all, abortion wasn’t Romney’s issue. He was a CEO interested in management and finance. His comments throughout the 1994 campaign reflected ignorance about RU486, morning-after pills, and parental consent laws, which in those days were major topics in the abortion debate. Romney was smart enough to learn about these issues if he had wanted to. He just didn’t care that much.
Romney could have framed his complex feelings about abortion either way. Wirthlin’s poll said that if he ran as a pro-lifer, he’d lose. It would be simplistic to say that the poll dictated Romney’s decision. But we know that he used the poll to influence the most important pro-life organization he had to appease at the time: the elders of the LDS church.
Scott’s account, as told in his book and in a more detailed interview with Slate, is based on conversations with Romney and other senior church officials who were present. As president of the Boston stake, Romney owed church leaders a consultation before doing anything that might cause them trouble. In October or November 1993, he went to Salt Lake City to meet with them and explain the abortion position he was going to take. Wirthlin went with him. In these meetings, Wirthlin was more than a pollster. He was a church official, a brother of one of the church’s 12 apostles, and a cousin of the church’s next president.
Romney didn’t ask the brethren in Salt Lake what his abortion position should be. He had already decided on it. He didn’t ask them to endorse it, either. He came to explain his position, why he had to take it, and how it conformed to church doctrine. He told them he would say that he opposed abortion personally but that such private beliefs shouldn’t be imposed on others. Romney argued that this view was acceptable under the doctrine of free agency, and he used the poll data to close the sale. If he didn’t frame his position as pro-choice, he’d lose. Many of the church leaders were unhappy with Romney’s formulation. But if they wanted him in the Senate, this was the best they were going to get.
Scott was present when Romney talked about the meetings after he returned to Boston. Judy Dushku, a Mormon feminist, says she heard a similar account from Romney in 1994:
I went to his office and I congratulated him on taking a pro-choice position. And his response was—Well they told me in Salt Lake City I could take this position, and in fact I probably had to in order to win in a liberal state like Massachusetts. … I said, Mitt, it doesn’t make me happy to hear that. What you’re suggesting is that you’re not genuinely pro-choice. It’s a position of convenience. He said—Oh no, I actually had an aunt who died of a botched abortion. So I have some positive feelings about choice, but basically I know that I have to take that position.
If you don’t think Romney would say such a calculated thing, look at this video. It shows Romney on The O’Reilly Factor on Dec. 19, 2011, explaining how he came to his pro-choice position. He tells Bill O’Reilly: “I thought, ‘Well, I can say and can understand the idea of leaving the law the way it is. The Supreme Court has made its decision. I'm just going to say I will support the law and preserve the law as it exists.’ ” Notice the language: I can say … I’m just going to say. This isn’t a man talking about what he believes. It’s a man talking about framing a public posture under constraint.
1994: The Senate Race
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.)
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."
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.
This was a powerful statement. Romney was saying that he, like his mother, believed deeply in choice and would defend it regardless of the politics of his state. He made an almost identical statement in another debate with O’Brien on Oct. 1, 2002. You can watch the Oct. 29 statement here and the Oct. 1 statement here.
Now look again at Romney’s reinterpretation of that pledge in his July 2005 op-ed: Because Massachusetts is decidedly prochoice, I have respected the state's democratically held view.
Essentially, Romney was now confirming O’Brien’s accusation. His promise in 2002 to preserve existing abortion rights in Massachusetts, unlike his mother’s pro-choice stand in Michigan in 1970, had been purely political. And the new, “pro-life” Romney was—incredibly—sticking with that promise. He had changed his abortion identity. He had changed the meaning of his pledge from pro-choice to neutral. And he had changed the rationale for his pledge from individual freedom to democracy. But he wouldn’t break his word. He would uproot it, gut it, and deform it. He would make it so morally hollow and so at odds with his previous representations of it that no normal person—particularly one who had genuinely converted to the sanctity of life—would see any point in continuing to defend it. But Romney wouldn't let go.
This is what everyone misunderstands about Romney. His problem isn’t that he breaks his promises. His problem is that he can’t stand the idea of breaking his promises. He’d rather rewrite his history, again and again, than admit to betraying a commitment. If possible, he’ll formulate the initial pledge so it’s emptier than it looks. If necessary, he’ll redefine it. His word means everything to him, even when his words mean nothing.
Romney’s conversion in 2005 wasn’t from choice to life. It was from one empty word to another. To any real pro-lifer, “pro-life” meant seeking legal protection for the unborn. If you said you were “personally pro-life” but would preserve other people’s right to choose abortion, that meant you were pro-choice. Most pro-choice people had qualms about abortion. They just didn’t impose their feelings on others. That’s where Romney stood in 2002. And it’s where he still stood in July 2005: I have not attempted to impose my own views. The fishy thing about Romney’s conversion wasn’t that he changed his approach to abortion legislation, but that he didn’t.
Even Romney’s shift on Roe was passive. In June, he had called Roe a 30-year-old distraction. In July, he upgraded it to a 32-year source of bitterness and anger. And yet, essentially, he was saying the same thing: The fight over abortion was causing trouble. Romney wanted the fight to go away. But now, instead of pushing it away by leaving the decision to individuals, he would push it away by leaving the issue to states. “We will never have peace on the abortion issue,” he wrote in the Globe, “until democracy is allowed to work its way.”
The politics of Romney’s shift were obvious. He couldn’t have won the Republican presidential nomination as a pro-choicer, just as he couldn’t have won the governorship of Massachusetts as a pro-lifer. Already in 2005, he had been to South Carolina, Michigan, Missouri, and California. In June, he had admitted he was “testing the national waters.” And now he was talking about abortion like a president, not a governor. In the op-ed, he discussed “the laws of our nation,” proposing to let states restrict abortion because “the nation remains so divided” over it. Massachusetts was overwhelmingly pro-choice, but the country was almost evenly split. Romney was no longer thinking of his constituency as Massachusetts. He was thinking of his constituency as the United States.
2005-07: Rewriting History
After his July 2005 declaration, Romney had almost no direct involvement in abortion policy. And that was how he wanted it. "We would have been better off had each state been able to develop their own policy," he told Knight-Ridder in January 2006. "That way a state like mine, Massachusetts, would be overwhelmingly pro-choice, and I as governor would do exactly as I have committed. I’m not going to change the laws. You’ve chosen pro-choice, it’s a democratic society, you’ve chosen it, I’ll keep it in place." A month later, Romney told Chris Wallace that although he didn’t favor abortion, “I wouldn't change the laws as governor because I believe each state should have the right to make their own choice.” To the end of his term in January 2007, Romney went on using states’ rights as a fig leaf for his passivity.
Instead of changing his policies, Romney rewrote his record. To position himself for the Republican presidential nomination, he needed a cleaner, more compelling conversion story. The first problem was his weird segue from cloning to abortion. In February 2006, Chris Wallace asked Romney how his concern about treating embryos as commodities had led him to rethink abortion. “The stem cell question, which often deals with the question of harvesting of eggs or fetuses to be used for stem cell—that isn't why most women get abortions,” Wallace pointed out. “The vast majority of women aren't getting an abortion so that they can sell their fetus.” Romney responded by blurring the issues into a single episode: “The time of the change came as we were involved in the discussion of stem cell research, and I said at that point I am pro-life.”
A month later, in a C-SPAN interview about his presidential aspirations, Romney declared, “I'm at the forefront of some of the toughest issues in the nation that relate to the culture of our land. … I'm the leader in the fight to keep cloning and stem, if you will, embryo farming from being introduced to the land.” (You can watch the clip here.)
That was a stretch, to put it kindly. The leader in the fight against embryo-destructive research was President Bush. Romney, in his most recent statement on stem cells, had sided with Bush’s opponents. At a Boston press conference on May 27, 2005, Romney had equated his own position with that of federal lawmakers who were trying to overturn Bush’s restrictions on stem-cell research. In a video of the press conference, shown here, you can watch Romney’s statement: “The United States House of Representative voted for a bill that was identical to what I proposed. … They voted to provide for surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization processes being used for research and experimentation. That’s what I said I support.”
As late as October 2006, Romney continued to say he favored using spare IVF embryos for stem-cell research. Then, apparently, he had another epiphany.
On Jan. 8, 2007, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, an influential player in that state’s Republican primary, endorsed Romney for president. In a letter, DeMint assured South Carolina conservatives that Romney was “strongly pro-life” and supported “maintaining the ban on federal funding of research that involves the killing of human embryos.” DeMint called Romney “a great asset to the cause of life because he has done something that we must convince many other Americans to do; he has changed his mind. After reviewing new scientific data, he is absolutely convinced that human life begins at conception.”
But Romney hadn’t reviewed any new data between October and January. The only thing that had changed, other than his position on funding stem-cell research, was DeMint’s endorsement. The question was which change explained the other.
Romney’s new position, articulated in a February 2007 statement from his aide, Peter Flaherty, was that embryo-destructive stem-cell research “should not be funded by the taxpayers” because it was "ethically troublesome," though Romney continued to defend it as a private choice. Within days, Romney’s allies were marketing this position to pro-lifers, using it as a wedge issue against rival Republican candidates John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.
Once again, Romney had changed his position. And once again, he had profited by it. But that wasn’t enough. The record had to be scrubbed, too.
In May 2005, Romney had clearly said on camera that his position was identical to the House bill that would have funded embryo-destructive stem-cell research. Looking back at that period, Romney could have admitted that he’d changed his position since then. But that would have complicated the conversion story. The conversion was supposed to have happened all at once. So Romney’s aides reinterpreted his 2005 statement. They said he had been talking about research the federal bill would have allowed, not research it would have funded.
That was impossible. Bush had never prohibited research on spare IVF embryos. The federal bill couldn’t have legalized this research—and didn’t—because the research was already legal. The entire debate between Bush and Congress had been about funding. Romney’s reinterpretation of his 2005 position was no more truthful than his reinterpretation of his 2002 position.
On abortion, too, Romney went through a series of revisions in 2006 and 2007. His first stop was the Charlie Rose show on June 5, 2006. There, for the first time, Romney told the story of his November 2004 epiphany about embryos and Roe. (You can watch it here.) He ended the story with this account of his takeaway:
I recognized that I could no longer stand in the posture of saying, “Look, I’m personally opposed, but I’m not going to change the law.” I needed to make it very clear that in my view we are wrong to accept abortion other than in cases of rape and incest.
This account was impossible to square with the record. In the months after his November 2004 meeting, Romney had been pressed repeatedly to clarify his abortion position. He had refused to alter any part of his position until July 2005. And he had never shifted his position on changing the law. He continued to stand by his 2002 pledge not to restrict abortion in Massachusetts.
By the time Romney told the epiphany tale to Redstate in September 2006, he had patched up the narrative. His new version of the story ended with a fuzzier commitment to call himself pro-life. But in 2007, Romney added other fictions to his record: that he had “never said I was pro-choice,” that he had “opposed efforts to advance embryo-destructive research,” and that he had resolved to make Massachusetts a “pro-life state.”
In December 2006, one month before he left office, Romney issued the two most important documents of his record-cleansing project. They were checks from a Romney-controlled foundation to Massachusetts Citizens for Life and the Massachusetts Family Institute, for a combined $25,000. After that, the two groups, which had previously criticized Romney, began to say nice things, which Romney then used to validate his tenure as a pro-life governor. In May 2007, the western Massachusetts chapter of MCFL gave Romney its “Political Leadership Award,” which Romney proceeded to cite in four presidential debates. Last month, Romney invoked the group’s praise in two more debates.
2007-12: The Final Whitewash
Beyond establishing his pro-life identity, Romney the presidential candidate has shown little interest in abortion. In February 2007, George Stephanopoulos asked him, “If it's killing, why should states have leeway?” Romney answered: “There are a lot of things that are morally very difficult, and in some cases repugnant, that we let states decide. For instance, Nevada allows prostitution. I find that to be quite repugnant as a practice.” (You can watch Romney’s answer here.) Months later, when Tim Russert asked what punishment doctors should get for performing abortions, Romney—who had previously proposed long jail terms for cloning embryos—said the penalties for abortion “would be potentially losing a license or having some other kind of restriction.” Romney has never treated abortion as killing. To him, it’s a cultural problem, like turning tricks. In speeches to socially conservative audiences from 2006 to 2008, he rarely mentioned abortion, preferring to talk about gay marriage. In 2011 and 2012, he has said even less.
Of all Romney’s revisions, the boldest is his effort to imply that he deliberately governed as a pro-lifer. The record, as documented above, shows that Romney ran for governor in 2002 as a man who would protect the right to choose abortion because he believed in that right, regardless of politics. Then, in 2005, he reinterpreted his pledge as a neutrality pact with the state’s pro-choice majority. “We're going to maintain the status quo,” he told reporters in June 2005. “It's a moratorium, if you will, on change.” Romney reaffirmed that position in July 2005, when he vetoed the bill to distribute morning-after pills: “I pledged that I would not change our abortion laws either to restrict abortion or to facilitate it.”
That was the last directly life-related bill Romney faced. There were later controversies over abortion coverage in Romneycare, conscience exemptions for distributing morning-after pills, and broadening the eligibility rules for recipients of state-funded family planning. But these legal and administrative questions didn’t fundamentally challenge or illuminate the governor’s moral position on life. Once Romney stepped down as governor in January 2007, his inbox was closed. Since the two bills that had reached his desk were opposed by pro-lifers, he could claim a perfect pro-life record. And he did.
On June 15, 2007, Romney spoke at the National Right to Life Convention, an important venue for Republican presidential candidates. He cast himself as a true believer inspired to action by his 2004 epiphany: “A moment of decision became a defining moment. And so, every time I faced a decision as governor that related to life, I came down on the side of life.” Romney repeated this line in several presidential debates. In January 2008, he proclaimed, “I came down on the side of life consistently as governor, in every way I knew how I could do that.”
Romney wasn’t attributing this record to luck. He was claiming credit for having chosen the pro-life course at every opportunity. He had transformed himself, in retrospect, from pro-choice to neutral to pro-life. Apparently, he thought his new story couldn’t be falsified, since he would never have to face a pro-life bill.
He was wrong. Dan Balz had kept the recording of his February 2005 interview with Romney. In a part of the interview that wasn’t published at the time, Romney said his press aide
came to me the other day and said there's a new bill coming up with regards to a particular matter. And I said, “Don't tell me what it does. I will veto it.” It relates to choice and abortion. I said, “I don't know whether it's pro-life or pro-choice. I said I would not support any change in the law while I was governor.” … Whether it's one that conforms with my own personal view or whether it conforms to someone else’s view, I've said, “Nothing while I’m governor.”
You can listen to the recording here. It confirms that three months after his epiphany and two weeks after he came out against cloning, Romney had told his staff he would veto pro-life legislation. Which means the story he told pro-lifers in 2007 was false.
And that wasn’t the only duplicity in Romney’s 2007 address to the right-to-life convention. He also told the crowd:
Recently, I was attacked by one of my opponents because when I ran for governor I promised to maintain the status quo with regards to laws relating to abortion in Massachusetts. Of course, I kept that promise. But in Massachusetts, that meant vetoing pro-choice legislation.
Essentially, Romney was saying he had tricked pro-choice voters in 2002. He had framed his no-change policy as preserving a woman’s right to choose, knowing all the while that everything he did as governor would limit that right. But to Romney, this deception was OK, since he had technically kept his promise.
What Romney didn’t tell pro-lifers was that he had played the same trick on them. On Sept. 26, 2002, when he met with officers of Mass NARAL to seek the group’s endorsement for governor, the activists took detailed notes of the conversation. Melissa Kogut, the group’s former executive director, read me excerpts from the notes. One of Romney’s pitches was that his judicial appointees would be more pro-choice than his opponent’s, since Massachusetts Republicans tended to favor abortion rights.
He was right. And last month, Newt Gingrich called him on it. In a debate, Gingrich said Romney had appointed “pro-abortion judges.” In response, Romney played innocent: “We don't have a litmus test for appointing judges, asking them if they're pro-life or not pro-life.”
This is how Romney operates. If his decisions go your way, he’ll tell you it’s deliberate. If they don’t, he’ll tell you it’s an accident. And if he’s telling you one story, he’s telling your opponents another.
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That’s the story of Romney’s conversion and his evolving accounts of it. What does it tell us about him?
It tells us what he believes, how he thinks, and who he is. He believes abortion is wrong. He has always believed that. He has counseled women against it. But he understands the issue’s complexity. He knows abortion laws can drive women to fatal desperation. He has seen in his mother a model of how to be against abortion but wary of abortion laws. He’s uneasy about imposing his moral views on other people. He knows the blessings and quandaries of IVF. He believes it’s wrong to create life in order to destroy it. He respects unborn life in a Mormon way, not a Catholic one.
When Romney puts his mind to moral issues, he can be quite thoughtful. But he doesn’t like them. He avoids them as long as possible. Then he says as little as possible. He can frame his complex thoughts on abortion either way. Since he views the issue as a political threat, he navigates it by negation. He chooses the position least likely to derail his candidacy or his agenda. The two positions he has taken—individual choice and state choice—are attempts to make the issue go away. Throughout his career, Romney has treated abortion as a question of identity, not policy. His focus isn’t on promoting life, but on being seen as pro-life.
Romney believes in telling the truth and keeping his promises. But sometimes he wishes the truth or his promise had happened in a different way. He wishes he could change it. And in his mind, he does change it. He reinterprets his statements, positions, and pledges. He edits his motives and reasons. He compresses intervals. He inflates moments. He tightens the narrative. He rewrites his lines. Yet he always finds a thread of truth on which to hang his revised history. He’s a master of the technicality.
He’s also a gifted salesman. He learns your language and puts you at ease. He gives you the version of his record, position, or motive that will please you most. When he comes down on your side, it’s intentional. When he doesn’t, it’s inadvertent. He focuses not on communicating his beliefs but on formulating, framing, or withholding them for political effect. He tells moving stories of personal experience to show you his sincerity. Then, if necessary, he erases those stories from his playbook and his memory.
My favorite Romney abortion moment happened four months ago, in October 2011, on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News show. According to news reports, Romney said on the program that he wished courts would “decide that states have the ability to make their own decisions in regards to abortion.” But that isn’t what Romney said. If you watch the video, here’s what he said: “I am pro-life and would prefer to have the courts decide that individuals—rather, that states have the ability—to make their own decisions with regards to abortion.”
Not a single transcript or media report caught the goof. But it wasn’t really a goof. It was Romney the pro-choicer speaking through Romney the pro-lifer. With the substitution of a single word, he had slipped seamlessly from one persona to the other.
Which persona is real? Neither. Romney’s soul isn’t in the five minutes he spent as a pro-lifer in that interview, or in the two seconds he spent as a pro-choicer. It’s in the flux, the transition between the two roles. It’s in the editing of his record, the application of his makeup, the shuffling of his rationales. Romney will always be what he needs to be. Count on it.
Thanks to Alison Ryland for research assistance.