It would be foolish to imagine that social conservatism can achieve any significant success without a president who strongly supports social conservative positions. The reason for this lies primarily in the president’s power to appoint judges. Social policy in America has been largely shaped by the federal judiciary, which has imposed an unrelenting liberal agenda on a reluctant people. The law, as it concerns the issues of abortion, religious freedom, pornography, gay rights, sexual license, family, and marriage, has been shaped and even determined by judicial fiat. Presidential leadership is vital to reversing these affronts.
There is no doubt that Governor Mitt Romney is running unabashedly as a pro-life and pro-family candidate for president and that he wants Roe
overturned. But his sincerity is being questioned because, as he has acknowledged, he has changed his mind on these issues. In 1994, in his race against Teddy Kennedy for the U.S. Senate, and in his 2002 race for governor of Massachusetts, Romney was pro-choice on abortion. So it is right to question him about the sincerity of his conversion.
Romney’s conversion was less abrupt than is often portrayed. In his 1994 Senate run, Romney was endorsed by Massachusetts Citizens for Life and kept their endorsement, even though he declared himself to be pro-choice, because he supported parental-consent laws, opposed taxpayer-funded abortion and mandatory abortion coverage under a national health insurance plan, and was against the Freedom of Choice Act, which would have codified Roe v. Wade by federal statute. In 1994, NARAL’s Kate Michelman pronounced him a phony pro-choicer. “Mitt Romney, stop pretending,” she demanded. “We need honesty in our public life, not your campaign of deception to conceal your anti-choice views,” she said. Some conservative Boston newspaper columnists view it similarly. As Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe put it: “Romney’s very public migration rightward over the last few years is . . . intended not to hide his real views but to liberate them. In 1994, Romney struck me as an extraordinarily bright, talented, and decent man — and a political neophyte who fell for the canard that the only way a conservative could win in Massachusetts was by passing for liberal.”
In 2001, Romney said, in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribute, that he believes that “abortion is the wrong choice, but under the law it is a choice people have.” And in the 2002 governor’s race, Romney made clear that “on a personal basis, I don’t favor abortion,” that he opposed lowering the age at which minors could obtain abortions without parental consent to 16, and that he supported a ban on partial-birth abortions, but that, as governor, he would “protect the right of a woman to choose under the law of the country and the laws of the commonwealth.” As one Boston commentator observed, Romney’s “abortion statements sound as much like someone trying to wrestle with the issue as someone trying to weasel his way out of it.”
Romney now says that he was wrong about abortion in those years, that his position has “evolved and deepened” as governor, and that he is “firmly pro-life.”
The evaluation of Romney’s conversion needs to be considered in light of the pro-life movement’s consistent effort over the years to educate, and thereby convert, people to the cause. The pro-life movement has aggressively promoted conversion and has achieved great success in doing so. Today, for the first time since Roe v. Wade, a majority of Americans identify themselves as pro-life, and many of these are converts, some who have even had abortions themselves. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, both pro-life presidents, were converts. In 1967, Reagan, as governor of California, signed into law the nation’s most permissive abortion law, and, in 1980, Bush ran as an unabashedly pro-choice candidate. Both were unswerving in their support for the pro-life position as president, and Reagan’s ability and willingness to articulate the pro-life position was invaluable.
Yet how is the sincerity of a conversion to be measured? There are two salient considerations in this regard: first, some defining moment that prompted a change of heart; second, the fact that deeds speak louder than words. Romney’s conversion exhibits both. First, Romney has had a life-changing event. It was when he was governor and researchers were proposing embryonic cloning at Harvard. As he recounts it, one of the researchers said that there “wasn’t a moral issue, because . . . they destroy the embryos at 14 days.” Romney said that “it struck me that we have so cheapened the value of human life in this country through our Roe v. Wade decision that someone could think that there is no moral issue to have racks and racks of living human embryos and then destroying them at 14 days.”
This was not a trivial matter for Romney and his family. As he told the New York Times at the time, “My wife has MS and we would love for there to be a cure for her disease and for the diseases of others. But there is an ethical boundary that should not be crossed.”
And Romney, as governor, acted on these convictions. He vetoed an embryonic cloning bill; he vetoed a bill that would allow the “morning after pill” to be acquired without a prescription on the grounds that it is an abortifacient; he vetoed legislation which would have redefined Massachusetts longstanding definition of the beginning of human life from fertilization to implantation; and he fought to promote abstinence education in the classroom. One should not underestimate the tremendous political price that Governor Romney paid in Massachusetts for these acts. Both conviction and courage are necessary for effective pro-life leadership, and Romney, in office, displayed both.
These actions as governor have lead leaders of the most important social conservative groups in Massachusetts, including Massachusetts Citizens for Life, Massachusetts Family Institute, and the Knights of Columbus, to observe that, while previous comments by Romney “are, taken by themselves, obviously worrisome to social conservatives including ourselves, they do not dovetail with the actions of Governor Romney from 2003 until now — and those actions positively and demonstrably impacted the social climate of Massachusetts.” They conclude that Romney “demonstrat[ed] [his] solid social conservative credentials by undertaking” these actions, and has therefore “proven that he shares our values, as well as our determination to protect them.”
Many social conservatives do not share Romney’s Mormon faith, but his faith should be viewed by social conservatives as a good sign, not as a matter of concern. The Mormon religion, while having tenets that Christians do not share, is profoundly conservative in its support for life, family, and marriage. Thus, Romney’s religion reinforces, rather than conflicts with, his conversion. All people of faith believe that the best public officials are those with God, not man, at the center of their lives.
It cannot be forgotten, however, that this is also a political question, a matter of practical choices. And what are these choices? Senator John McCain and Mayor Rudy Giuliani are the other leading candidates for the Republican nomination. Barring the unlikely emergence of some conservative alternative in the next few months, the choice will be between Giuliani, McCain, and Romney. While both Giuliani and McCain would be vastly superior to any of the prospective Democrats, there are serious questions about the policy positions of both, and not just on social conservative issues.
Giuliani is simply not a social conservative. He is pro-choice, pro-partial birth abortion, and pro-special rights for homosexuals. He is also pro-gun control. Senator McCain opposes the federal marriage amendment, supports embryonic stem-cell research, and was a ringleader of the Gang-of-14 compromise that made it easier for Democrats to block President Bush’s judicial nominees. Also, he is the principal sponsor of the McCain-Feingold bill, which imposes severe limits on the participation of citizens groups and political parties in our representative democracy.
It is unlikely that there will be any social conservative in this race to rival Giuliani and McCain other than Governor Romney. And Romney’s record on other conservative issues is impressive as well. He has demonstrated his administrative ability in successfully managing a variety of organizations in the private (his venture-capital firm), the nonprofit (Salt Lake City Olympics), and the public (as governor) arenas. Romney’s views on economic and foreign affairs are thoroughly conservative, his ability to effect them is enviable, and, just as importantly, his skill at articulating them is superb.
Whatever one thinks about Romney’s conversion, and I believe it is sincere, the fact remains that Romney opposes public funds for embryo-destructive research that McCain and Giuliani support. Romney has fought for a federal marriage amendment and McCain and Giuliani oppose one. There is the simple question of whether social conservatives want someone who is currently on their side or someone who currently opposes them.
– James Bopp Jr. is a lawyer who focuses on nonprofit corporate and tax law, on campaign finance and election law, and on life issues. He most recently joined the Romney Presidential campaign as a special adviser on life issues, an unpaid position.