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.
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