Politics & Policy

Latter-Day Lifer

Mitt Romney ought to tell his political-conversion story.

Is Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney pro-life?

It’s a question that’s been dogging him and will continue to do so. He’s known among many conservatives for fighting against cloning as governor of Massachusetts — but he’s also becoming increasingly known (YouTube, baby!) for pro-choice statements he made when trying to unseat Ted Kennedy in 1994 and again when running for governor in 2002. In speeches and interviews, Romney pinpoints a 2005 meeting with university professors as the moment he realized “just how much the sanctity of life had been cheapened by virtue of the Roe v. Wade mentality.” Taken as an isolated event, it’s not very compelling.

But that kind of realization doesn’t happen in a bubble. It is preceded by a growing appreciation of the dangers posed by a rush into a Brave New World. Faced with seductive and promising biotechnology, we (or some of us, anyway) have slowly learned that ethical questions cannot be answered without considering the life-and-death consequences of the answers. It makes sense that, after rising to the position of a state’s chief executive, a businessman with a latent pro-life inclination might develop a heightened sense of the dangers posed to humanity when confronted with the possibility of state-funded embryo farming.

Back in 2005, when he was just a governor and a real long shot for president, Romney highlighted the disregard for human life that pervades debates on bioethics. While fighting his alma mater (Harvard) and the biotech industry, Romney explained that, although he would not sign on to a bill that would allow (and fund) the creation of new embryos to be killed in scientific research (“therapeutic” cloning), he would agree to support experimentation on surplus frozen embryos from in vitro-fertilization procedures. But proponents of embryonic-stem-cell research refused to meet him in the middle; they wanted it all.

Romney caught my attention with something he said at the time: “All of the rhetoric has been, ‘We are throwing away embryos — surplus embryos — that could be used for stem-cell research and that makes no sense.’ . . . And now, now that I’ve said, ‘Okay, I support that,’ now [the other side says], ‘No, that’s insufficient. How could you possibly limit it to that?’ Well, that’s what they’ve been asking for.” Even though Romney was ready to reach a compromise, the other side was not — and would never be. They were all-or-nothing absolutists, and Romney had exposed them.

For those who had been watching the cloning debate as it made its way around the country, it hardly came as a surprise that there would be no compromise from the other side. In June 2003, Princeton University professor Robert P. George and University of Chicago professor Leon Kass discussed limits with biotech lobbyist Michael Werner during a hearing of the president’s bioethics commission. George, knowing full well that biotech explorers wanted to go all the way, poked and prodded at the contention that those who were pushing for so-called research cloning would be satisfied with never implanting a cloned embryo in a woman. He asked, “So if there were promising lines of research that would require implantation, you would not be in favor of pursuing those lines of research?”

Werner started out okay. “Yes, that’s correct.” But then continued, “Having said that, I will be fair and say I think that — no, I think that it’s fair to say that, you know, science advances, ethical thinking advances. We constantly are reexamining our views and our principles.”

He went on to cite a 14-day limit for cloned embryos — let the cloned embryo live only that long — but argued that we should keep that limit only “for the time being.” Werner explained, “I understand that that’s frustrating, and that’s why I sort of hesitated to say it, but I do think that that’s where we are, and I don’t know that it’s appropriate to say that limits on scientific research should stay static over the course of decades as things change.”

That sort of goalpost-moving is exactly what Romney saw happening in the Massachusetts statehouse in 2005.

Cynics then and now would say the governor made a stand against cloning purely as an act of pandering: He judged that pro-life primary voters held the key to the White House, and so he took their side. But I never bought that explanation. If it were all about winning a future election, you’d think Romney would have gone all the way — and opposed the use of frozen embryos in fertility clinics in scientific research. Instead, it seemed to me, he actually believed what he was saying.

More important, though, he walked into a teaching opportunity and made use of it. It became clear to him that advocates of embryonic-stem-cell research would not accept any restrictions; there would be no compromise from those who wanted to experiment with life at its earliest stages because they wouldn’t admit that there could ever be a reason for caution. Romney sounded like a guy who understood the dangers posed by the legislation the biotech industry was pushing. He sounded like a leader who grasped what my friend and colleague Ramesh Ponnuru wrote about in his recent book; Massachusetts was on the brink of surrendering to the Party of Death.

It was not an easy lesson to communicate: After all, it’s not as if loads of people in 2005 were making the argument he was. Anyone who did — including Romney — was generally dismissed as a heartless person more concerned with the niceties of moral reasoning (or political primaries) than with sick people. And it wasn’t anything like February 2007 back then. Now we’re finally talking in the open about alternatives to embryo-destroying research. Today, we live in a world where the Virgin Megastore guy (Richard Branson) has his own stem-cell company, encouraging parents to store their children’s umbilical-cord-blood stem cells. If ever needed, they’re there, without the moral dilemmas that entangle embryonic-stem-cell research. Those of us who talk about these non-embryo-destroying options may still be widely considered mean people — think Rush Limbaugh fighting cloning in Missouri this past November — but the fact remains: There are far more promising alternatives to embryo-destructive research. The political environment back in 2005 was far from welcoming — but Romney took an unpopular stand and one I never had the impression he came to lightly. “My wife has MS,” he told the New York Times at the time, “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.”

Even though Romney lost to Harvard & Co., his pushback helped get us to the Virgin/Branson world we’re living in today. Now polite society is talking about alternatives to embryonic-stem-cell research. But even though Romney helped change the terms of this debate, people are skeptical about his overall commitment to protecting human life. And understandably so: His record — from not all that long ago: when he ran for Senate in 1994 and governor in 2002 — suggests something less than a full appreciation of the value of human life.

If his conversion is sincere and deep-seated, it should be relatively easy for him to make a compelling case. On cloning, Romney displayed passion, intelligence, and clarity that are rare from politicians on life issues (especially these more complicated, medically advanced ones). Those attributes could be a huge asset in the next president, who will confront the unfinished business of enacting a ban on human cloning. But only Romney himself can demonstrate his sincerity and commitment. If he’s the real deal, he will have to make the case that he is — quickly, confidently, and consistently.

He’s started to. In December Governor Romney told NRO, in part:

I do believe that the one-size-fits-all, abortion-on-demand-for-all-nine-months decision in Roe v. Wade does not serve the country well and is another example of judges making the law instead of interpreting the Constitution.

What I would like to see is the Court return the issue to the people to decide. The Republican party is and should remain the pro-life party and work to change hearts and minds and create a culture of life where every child is welcomed and protected by law and the weakest among us are protected. I understand there are people of good faith on both sides of the issue. They should be able to make and advance their case in democratic forums with civility, mutual respect, and confidence that our democratic process is the best place to handle these issues.

This is a good start, but it’s not yet enough to make the sale — particularly when with near everyday, it seems, there comes a new reminder that he’s a latter-day pro-lifer. At the moment, he still doesn’t exude “pro-life” to people. To the contrary, “Massachusetts flip-flopper” is closer to the prevailing tag. If Mitt Romney does, in fact, want to commit to being a pro-life leader for the long haul, then people need to meet Mitt Romney, pro-lifer. Speaking at a retreat for conservative House Republicans on Friday, Romney said of life and marriage (marriage protection is another issue he has an opportunity to do some constructive work on), “I didn’t ask for these issues to be put on my plate. But as governor I didn’t have the luxury of silently sitting on the sidelines. I spent a lot of time looking at these issues, talked to a lot of people, and thought seriously about them and their implications.” What pro-lifers need is an assurance that he has come to a firm conclusion about the implications of unrestricted, life-destroying research, and that this conclusion would pervade a Romney administration. I buy it, but for many, he’s not yet made the case. Pro-lifers need to embrace converts for the life of their cause, but they also know to trust only after verification.

So back to that initial question: Is Mitt Romney pro-life? That’s what I saw in Massachusetts in 2005 — a pro-life governor. And I’m far from the only one who’s made that observation. But announcements of pro-life lawyers and congressmen and others signing up to join Team Romney won’t do it for him (though they certainly help). People need to hear how he got there. He’s got to tell his conversion story, putting it in a fuller context than a statehouse meeting with academics. Without that full story, people will understandably continue to wonder if he’s just going far enough to pander to pro-life primary voters.

But if he does demonstrate his commitment to a culture of life, the turning of this middle-aged businessman’s heart may prove to be a welcome pro-life success story — and usher in a brave new era of life-affirming leadership.

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