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Mitt Romney, November 2006 (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
Mitt Romney and pro-life conversion

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January 29, 2007, issue of National Review magazine.

For decades, pro-life activists have been in the business of winning hearts and minds to their cause. Powerful arguments about the humanity of the unborn have moved public opinion, and a pro-life political force has made ambitious politicians feel the heat, whether or not they see the light. Pro-lifers’ faith in the power of persuasion has been rewarded, and their political clout increased, by important converts, including Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Mitt Romney has also changed his position on abortion, but some social conservatives argue that membership in their ranks should be closed to this most recent convert with presidential ambitions.

In 1967, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a liberal abortion law, declaring, “I’m fully sympathetic with attempts to liberalize the outdated abortion law now on the books in California.” Reagan later changed his mind and expressed regret for signing a measure that saw more abortions performed in California than in any other state before Roe v. Wade. He became a committed pro-life politician and backed the first pro-life plank in the Republican platform. George W. Bush ran as a pro-choice politician in his 1978 congressional campaign, but held pro-life views when he ran for the governorship of Texas in 1994. His father too once favored abortion rights, but took a pro-life position in the 1980 presidential campaign.

When Sam Brownback was running in a GOP congressional primary in 1994, he initially rebuffed a pro-life group’s endorsement, according to a recent account in The New Republic. In that article, a former president of Kansans for Life recalls that Brownback was “unfamiliar with the anti-abortion lexicon” 20 years after Roe v. Wade, and that Brownback described himself as “more in line with the views of Nancy Kassebaum,” the state’s pro-choice junior GOP senator. But Brownback wound up facing a primary challenger who, as the article puts it, “was about as pro-life as you could get without earning yourself a restraining order.” Prior to the race, Brownback had never had to defend his abortion views; but by Primary Day he was on the record as an abortion opponent. The article plausibly asserts that Brownback, who has formed a presidential exploratory committee, “is closing in on a decade as the leading social conservative in the U.S. Senate” (though Rick Santorum also has a claim to that title).

Although the experiences of three presidents and Sam Brownback strongly support the argument that genuine conversions happen, and that pro-life converts remain faithful, Mitt Romney’s change of heart has been met in some conservative quarters with hostile skepticism.

Romney ran as a pro-choice candidate in his 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy and in his 2002 gubernatorial campaign. In 1994, he revealed that a relative had died of a botched abortion in the 1960s, and said, “It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter, and you will not see me wavering on that.” In 2002, he assured Planned Parenthood and NARAL that he supported “the substance of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade”; he also said, “Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not mine and not the government’s.”

During his gubernatorial campaign, he won the endorsement of the abortion-rights group Republican Majority for Choice. But three years later, the group’s co-chairman declared, “We feel very betrayed.” The reason was that Governor Romney had vetoed a bill that would have allowed access to emergency contraception—the “morning-after pill”— without a prescription. Romney had also vetoed an embryonic-stem-cell-research bill; and last year his administration issued regulations banning the creation of embryos for research purposes, calling such research “Orwellian in its scope.”

In an opinion article that appeared in the Boston Globe, Romney defended his veto of the emergency-contraception bill. He explained, “The bill does not involve only the prevention of conception: The drug it authorizes would also terminate life after conception.” He faulted the bill for not requiring parental consent before allowing minors access to the pill. And he wrote, “I understand that my views on laws governing abortion set me in the minority in our Commonwealth. I am prolife. I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother.”

Does Romney’s acknowledged change on abortion (“I had this issue wrong in the past,” he frankly allows) make him the wrong presidential choice for conservatives? Some social conservatives in Massachusetts have been circulating a dossier of Romney’s past statements on abortion and gay rights, which have been widely quoted by his critics. And some claim that, as governor, Romney should have been more confrontational in advancing conservative positions.

For example, although Romney has won praise for defending traditional marriage following the court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, some of his conservative critics argue that he could have ignored the court and prohibited the issuance of marriage licenses to homosexual couples. He is also faulted for appointing two gay-rights activists, both former prosecutors, to local criminal courts. But Evangelicals for Mitt, a website that has convincingly defended Romney’s record on social issues, argues that he was bound by the court’s marriage decision, and points out that in Massachusetts a council wholly composed of Democrats must approve all judicial nominees.

Deal Hudson, the director of the Morley Institute for Church and Culture and the former editor of Crisis magazine, reflects the skepticism of some conservatives when he argues that Romney’s late-life conversion should raise eyebrows. Hudson writes on his blog: “Can Catholics trust that the 59-year-old Romney who was pro-choice and was unaffected by three decades of public debate over abortion would carry his new pro-life convictions over into Cabinet personnel decisions, judicial appointments, and public policy?” And although it appears that Romney has always been personally pro-life, having counseled women against abortion as a lay Mormon leader, Hudson asks, “What prevents Romney from converting back again?”

Because the media have gleefully pounced on Romney’s abortion “flipflop,” he will be called upon to explain his change of heart frequently during the campaign. As a practical political matter, any retreat from his current stance would destroy his credibility. Romney has been stating his abortion position with the conviction of a convert, in terms that can appeal to a broad audience. Many social conservatives are persuaded that his conversion is genuine. But pro-lifers who doubt Romney’s sincerity can take heart: When “ambitious” politicians “cynically” adopt pro-life views, it is because pro-lifers are winning.

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