GROWIN’ UP

02.02.15 10:55 AM ET

Christie’s Convenient Abortion Flip

Chris Christie used to tell about how his unborn daughter’s heartbeat inspired him to change his position on abortion. A story he now omits from his speeches to conservative groups.

Chris Christie has a story to sell social conservatives about being a pro-life Republican in the Northeast, and he is now leaving his pro-choice history, including his almost too-perfect journey to his new position, out of it.

On Jan. 24, Gov. Christie, clad in a crooked, pale blue tie, told an audience of evangelical voters in Des Moines, Iowa, that “political consultants” had told him that he could never win his 2009 gubernatorial campaign in socially liberal New Jersey if he wasn’t pro-choice.

“It had never been done before,” they allegedly warned.

He looked up from his notes and scanned the crowd, waving his hand in front of his heart. “They were wrong, because the people of New Jersey could see the sincerity of my beliefs on that issue.”

He said his election is “living proof” that “the notion that our party must abandon our belief in the sanctity of life to be competitive in blue states is simply not true.”

But it wasn’t that long ago that Christie was listening to those same cynical political consultants. From 1993, when he first ran for state senate, to 1995, Christie was passionately pro-choice.

Christie began his career as a moderate Republican in the vein of his political mentor, former Gov. Tom Kean. In his first campaigns, he announced admitted that he had personally donated to Planned Parenthood.

Over the years he has been self-flagellating about his two years in public life as a defender of abortion rights, calling himself a previously “nonthinking pro-choice person. It was just kind of the default position that I took.”

His epiphany, he first explained a few years ago, came after a doctor’s visit in 1995 when his wife was pregnant.

“When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, Sarah, who is now 15, we happened to go to one of the prenatal visits at 13 weeks,” he told Piers Morgan, then of CNN, in 2011. “They put the Doppler on my wife’s abdomen, who didn’t look at all pregnant at that point, visibly. And we heard this incredibly strong heartbeat.”

“And I remember we came separately. She came from her job. I came from mine. We went back to work. And I was driving back to work, I said to myself, you know, as to my position on abortion, I would say that a week ago that wasn’t a life. And I heard that heartbeat. That’s a life. And it—it led to me having a real reflection on my position. And when I took time to reflect on it, I just said, you know what, I’m not comfortable with that anymore. That was back in 1995, and I’ve been pro-life ever since.”

It’s a compelling story that has rarely been questioned.

In 2012, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, a prolific critic of Christie, wrote in Salon, in an article headlined  “How to Be Honest About Abortion,” that the governor’s evolution “seems authentic and genuine,” and that “Christie deserves [credit] for something important: He leveled with voters on what he actually believes when it wasn’t convenient for him.” Compared to Christie’s story, Kornacki wrote, Mitt Romney’s explanation for his own change of heart on abortion “reeks of calculation and cowardice.”

But Christie’s story is more complicated than it seems.

Christie’s daughter Sarah wasn’t his first child. He has an older son, Andrew, who was born in 1993, the year of Christie’s first (pro-choice) campaign, and whose heartbeat did not inspire a similar kind of soul-searching.

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Asked whether it was possible that Christie had gone through the duration of his wife’s first pregnancy without ever hearing his son’s heartbeat, his office did not respond.

There’s another part of the story that doesn’t add up. ‘That was back in 1995,” he told CNN, “and I’ve been pro-life ever since.”

But in 1996, while serving as a Morris County freeholder—a New Jersey-specific local position similar to that of a city councilperson—Christie was urging Congress to override President Bill Clinton’s veto of a bill to ban “partial birth” abortions, which he said “offended me and my sensibilities. When you take a position on choice, you don’t have that in mind… I’m pro-choice, but I think this procedure is reprehensible.”

In a 2009 press release, his gubernatorial opponent Steve Lonegan threw the “I’m pro-choice, but I think this procedure is reprehensible” line back in Christie’s face.

But, Lonegan noted, “Christie now says he may have been misquoted.”

Asked to confirm whether or not Christie had been misquoted, his office did not respond.

It could be that Christie never heard the heartbeat of his first child, or that his son’s heartbeat simply failed to impact him the way his daughter’s did, or that he was misquoted the year after he allegedly became pro-life as saying that he was still pro-choice—or all of the above.

But it’s worth considering that around the time Christie had his epiphany, he was badly losing a Republican primary for the state assembly to a staunchly pro-life conservative named Michael Patrick Carroll. Today, Carroll happens to serve on the legislative committee investigating Christie over Bridgegate.

“I don’t think questions of principle have ever entered into it,” Christie’s running mate from that campaign, Richard Merkt, told me Saturday at the Morristown Diner in Morris County.

Since I first interviewed Merkt about Christie in November 2013, he has become a frequent public critic of the governor—appearing everywhere from The New Yorker to MSNBC.

Merkt, it’s no surprise, doesn’t buy Christie’s story, though he does seem impressed by it. “The best story is one that no one can verify… No one can effectively gainsay that story because no one was there. No one can know—maybe he didn’t realize that children had heartbeats? I don’t know!”

“Let’s just say that my personal interactions with Chris would not have led me to believe that [the heartbeat of his second child] would have been the factor that drove his decision. But I can’t say that it didn’t happen—no one can, because we weren’t there. It’s the perfect political story.”

It’s true that becoming pro-life could bring with it complications for a Republican planning to run for statewide office in blue New Jersey. But, Merkt says, he believes it more likely that Christie had bigger offices in mind when he had his change of heart. 

“If I were a cynic, I’d say he may just have been reading the tea leaves and said, ‘Hmm, if I want to have a future in the national Republican Party, I can’t be a strong pro-choice person.’”

Whether or not he was thinking it then, Christie is well aware of the need to make known his pro-life position now.

He will likely face scrutiny on the issue if he runs for the Republican nomination against a primary crowded with evangelical Christian Republicans who social conservatives inherently trust more than an East Coast moderate.

Onstage in Iowa, Christie bellowed defiantly. “I can assure you that being pro-life is not a political liability anywhere in America. Being honest with the people you hope to represent about the feelings you hold deeply is never, ever a political liability, whether it is politically popular at the moment or not, and I will never change doing it that way.”