Mitt Romney’s Abortion Stance Risks Alienating Religious Right

The GOP front-runner refused to take an antiabortion litmus test, putting support from the religious right at risk. Michelle Goldberg on his tortured history on the topic—and his odd moderate bet.

John Amis / AP Photo

At this time in 2007, Mitt Romney appeared to be leading the Republican presidential pack. Polls showed him with a significant lead in New Hampshire. A profile in Time observed that “[I]n the recent Republican debate, when the 2008 field was first lined up onstage, he was widely proclaimed the winner because of his Presidential bearing.” His fundraising far outpaced his rivals. But in the end, he was doomed by the gulf between the positions he took to win the Massachusetts governorship and those demanded by the national Republican base. His shifting stance on abortion proved especially damaging.

That’s why the current mini-controversy over Romney’s refusal to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s anti-abortion pledge is significant. On one hand, it seems oddly principled of Romney, a candidate who has always been guided by expediency when it comes to abortion. At the same time, it highlights the challenge he faces as a candidate trying to run on reasonableness in a party of zealots. He seems to be hoping that today’s GOP is more willing to sacrifice purity for pragmatism than the GOP of four years ago. There is very little evidence that this is the case.

The Susan B. Anthony List is a 501(c)4 devoted to electing anti-abortion female candidates; it positions itself as a pro-life analogue to the pro-choice Emily’s List. Its pledge commits candidates to choosing anti-abortion appointees “for relevant Cabinet and Executive Branch positions, in particular the head of National Institutes of Health, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health & Human Services.” It includes a promise to work toward defunding “Planned Parenthood and all other contractors and recipients of federal funds with affiliates that perform or fund abortions.” Most of the Republican hopefuls have signed, including Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Only Romney, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman have declined.

Writing in the National Review, Romney argues, among other things, that the pledge would force the president to end federal funding for many hospitals. The Susan B. Anthony List calls this a “straw man argument.” “This was a concern that the Romney campaign raised with us prior to our announcement of the pledge,” says Ciara Matthews, the organization’s communications director. “We had some communication back and forth, and our president spoke with him and made clear that we were not interested in the defunding of hospitals that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds, or VA hospitals. We are specifically referencing defunding Planned Parenthood.”

Not surprisingly, Romney’s reluctance to sign the pledge has angered some social conservatives. “Mitt Romney especially stood to gain a lot with a show of support for basic pro-life principles,” says a post on the Concerned Women for America blog. “Many social conservatives view his candidacy with skepticism because he was against pro-life freedom before he was for it.”

Indeed, given Romney’s history, it’s surprising that he’s not bending over backward to shore up his anti-abortion credibility. After all, one thing that activists on both sides can agree on is that following Romney’s pronouncements on choice over the years produces a sort of whiplash. Running against Ted Kennedy for Senate in 1994, he was resolutely pro-choice, citing the death of his brother-in-law’s teenaged sister from a botched abortion as the reason for his conviction. Then, while living in Utah in 2001 and contemplating a political career in that state, he distanced himself from his earlier position. “I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake City Tribune.

But in 2002, when Massachusetts’ acting Republican Governor Jane Swift declined to run for election due to her collapsing poll numbers, a clear political path opened up for Romney there. "Please, Mitt Romney, get on the next plane out of town, come back to Massachusetts and run for governor,” implored one columnist. Seeking the helm of a famously liberal state, Romney decided he wanted to be labeled as pro-choice after all. Indeed, when his Democratic opponent challenged his pro-choice bona fides, he acted affronted. “Let me make this very clear: I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose,” he said.

He also came out strongly in favor of stem cell research, again using a personal family story to underline his commitment. His wife, he noted, suffers from multiple sclerosis, and he said he hoped work on stem cells might lead scientists to a cure. ''I am in favor of stem cell research,” he said at a 2002 bioethics forum. “I will work and fight for stem cell research.” Then he added, ''I'd be happy to talk to [President Bush] about this, though I don't know if I could budge him an inch.''

George Bush’s re-election in 2004, aided by an enormous evangelical mobilization, demonstrated that centrality of the religious right to the Republican Party. The next year Romney, preparing for a presidential run, had a pro-life epiphany. In February, he decided he opposed stem cell research after all. Then, in July, he vetoed a bill to allow over-the-counter access to emergency contraception. In an op-ed for the Boston Globe, he claimed that the issue of cloning had led him to reassess his position on abortion rights. “In considering the issue of embryo cloning and embryo farming, I saw where the harsh logic of abortion can lead—to the view of innocent new life as nothing more than research material or a commodity to be exploited,” he wrote. How this negated the impact of his young relative’s death went unsaid.

His supporters put out the word that he’d been anti-abortion all along, but had to hide his true views to make it in Massachusetts. “He's been a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly,” one of his senior advisers told The National Review. (After the line caused a flap, the adviser said his words had been taken out of context.)

In the end, plenty of socially conservative leaders, many of whom had a deep antipathy toward John McCain, proved willing to back Romney in 2008. But questions about his abortion stance dogged his campaign and troubled the Republican base. One poll showed that 51 percent of Iowa Republicans considered his abortion shifts a “major factor” in their decision about whether or not to support him. Mike Huckabee later bested Romney in the Iowa caucuses, a crucial blow to his campaign. In ultra-conservative South Carolina, Romney came in fourth.

It could be that this time around, Romney is giving up on the religious right from the outset. Unlike in 2008, he’s skipping Iowa. Maybe he thinks there’s a constituency for moderation in the Republican Party, and that he can somehow turn his mercurial stand on abortion into an advantage. So far, there’s no pro-choice Republican like Rudolph Giuliani in the mix, nor a figure like McCain who’s been butting heads with family-values types for years. In this field, Romney may have no choice but to run to the left of the other candidates on social issues while trying to convince an ever-more right-wing party to make him its tribune. That will be a supremely tricky thing to do, though when it comes to ideological bobbing and weaving, Romney has had many years of practice.

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Due to a miscommunication during the interview with Ciara Matthews, this story originally quoted her saying her organization spoke with Romney himself rather than with his campaign. It has been updated.