The funny thing about the 13 primary debates that the Republicans have held so far is that it has taken so many for us to learn anything. During his post-debate show last Thursday, Sean Hannity admitted to Mitt Romney that he hadn’t realized — until the former governor said so in this very last debate before the Iowa caucuses — that during the governor’s time in office, the Massachusetts legislature was “85 percent Democrat.” (Not to mention the fact that, frequently, the Republicans weren’t very good allies.) If that was news to a professional politics-watcher, then you can bet (how does $10,000 sound?) that Sean is not alone. And the information about the Massachusetts legislature is important, because it gives us a more accurate picture of Romney’s record, and sheds light on both the compromises he made and those he refused to make.
That last debate before Iowa was also the first time in this campaign that Romney told the story not only of his pro-life conversion, but of the radicalism that forced the issue.
“With regard to abortion, I had the experience of coming into office, running for governor saying, I’m going to keep the laws as they exist in the state,” he said. “They were pro-choice laws, so effectively I was pro-choice. Then I had a bill come to my desk that didn’t just keep the laws as they were but would have created new embryos for the purpose of destroying them. I studied it in some depth and concluded I simply could not sign on to take human life. I vetoed that bill. I described to them why I am pro-life.”
This was in 2005. The impetus for the bill came when the Harvard Stem Cell Institute announced plans to clone human embryos for research. The president of the Massachusetts state senate, Robert E. Travaglini, promptly introduced a bill to, in his words, “send a clear message that we are going to authorize this kind of research.”
Supporters of Harvard’s plans were making wild claims about the benefits of embryonic-stem-cell research, as people were wont to do back then. (Remember John Edwards’s snake-oil claim that Christopher Reeve would not have died if we had permitted federal funding of such research?) But, rather than buying into the hype, Romney became a student of the issue and came to the conclusion that, as he put it at the time, “whether you’re personally pro-life or pro-choice, we should be able to agree on ethical boundaries that should not be crossed when it comes to cloning human life for experimentation.”
The New Atlantis, a bioethical/technical journal, described Romney’s approach thus: “[It] would still permit (but not endorse or fund) the use of embryos left over from reproductive IVF procedures, but not the creation of new human embryos (either by cloning or IVF) simply to destroy them for their cells. The Romney initiative was a direct challenge to Harvard, which already engages in the creation of embryos for research and destruction and stands poised to approve research cloning.”