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