How, when, and why Mitt Romney changed his mind on abortion.
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.”
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
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.”
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.