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Mitt Romney's Evolution On Abortion

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has asserted his opposition to abortion rights in recent years, which has lead some to wonder about his earlier views.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has asserted his opposition to abortion rights in recent years, which has lead some to wonder about his earlier views.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been labeled a flip-flopper. And when it comes to abortion, the former governor of Massachusetts appears to have changed his position from being in favor of abortion rights to being opposed.

But now some people are asking if Romney ever supported abortion rights at all? Backers of abortion rights don't think so.

"In Massachusetts, when he was running for governor...a very liberal state, a state that was pro-choice, he was playing to the audience," says Nancy Keenan, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "And he made promises to the pro-choice community at that time that he did not keep," she said, including vetoing a bill that would have provided emergency contraceptives to victims of rape. "So the fact of the matter is he was not authentic in his position at that time."

During that 2002 run, Romney insisted in a debate, "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose, and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard." Putting a point on it, he said, "I will not change any provisions of Massachusetts' pro-choice laws."

Eight years earlier, in 1994, when Romney unsuccessfully challenged the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, he had been even stronger on the issue: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country; I have since the time that my mom took that position when she ran in 1970 as a U.S. Senate candidate," he said during that year's debate. "I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it."

That prompted Kennedy to say, "I am pro-choice. My opponent is multiple choice."

But today's Romney is clearly anti-abortion. "I'd make sure that the progress that has been made to provide for life and to protect human life is not progress that would be reversed," he told former Arkansas governor and a former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on Fox News in October. "My view is that the Supreme Court should reverse Roe v. Wade and send back to the states the responsibility for deciding whether they're going to have abortion legal in their state or not."

So what happened? According to Romney, he changed his mind about abortion in 2004, during a fight in Massachusetts over embryonic stem cell research.

In November of that year, he met with Harvard's Douglas Melton, a prominent embryonic stem cell researcher to discuss the issue.

"The story goes that he was put off by the cavalier way the medical researcher talked about disposing of excess frozen embryos," says Ron Scott, a journalist and distant cousin of the candidate who is the author of a new biography, Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics.

Scott says that meeting is what led Romney to change his mind on abortion. "I'm not sure of all the intricacies therein, but it was a moment for him apparently," he says.

Only there's a problem with Romney's story. The candidate has said repeatedly that Melton used the word "killing" to describe what happens to two-week old embryos in order to proceed with the research.

Melton has repeatedly denied ever using such language. "The record shows that the then governor and I have a distinctly different recollection of the meeting and our conversation," he wrote in an email to NPR.

Romney's campaign didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

Whatever happened in that meeting, however, from that point on Romney became significantly more opposed to abortion.

Keenan says his 2005 veto of a bill to provide the so-called morning-after pill to rape victims made him even more anti-abortion than other governors who also ended up in this year's GOP presidential field.

"Pawlenty and Huntsman actually signed those bills," she said, referring to the former Minnesota and Utah governors Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman. "So you can see that he is to the right (of them) and very anti-choice."

Romney biographer Scott says Romney never actually changed his personal position, simply his emphasis. "The truth of the matter is he personally had been pro-life throughout all of this," Scott says. "He simply had modified his position in 1994 and 2002" so that he was able to remain personally anti-abortion, "but...allow other people to make decisions for themselves."

But the question is if Romney now believes that abortion should truly be illegal, is it enough for the base of his party? "I believe he is a true convert," says Marjorie Dannenfelser, President of the Susan B. Anthony List. "I'm a convert to this position as well, and we ought to always be in a position of welcoming people to our side, which I do."

Still, earlier this summer the group asked all the GOP candidates to sign a pledge supporting a series of positions. Romney was one of a handful who declined to sign, and with Herman Cain's recent signature, has become the only major holdout. Romney's campaign said at the time the pledge would limit who he could appoint to some key positions in his administration.

Dannenfelser says she's still disappointed. And she says Romney still has more work to do to convince doubters that he'll need to win the Republican nomination.

"Honestly anyone can wear the sticker that says 'pro-life,' " she says. "What really matters is the fililng out of the content of what that means. And your leadership is what will show that."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie Rovner