“Flip-flop” may not be the right word. He more precisely zigzagged on the issue depending on which constituency he was speaking to in every campaign he ran or planned from 1994 until his position mostly stabilized shortly before his first presidential bid.
You may be pro-life or pro-choice. You may not care about abortion at all. But Romney’s tap-dancing on this issue is the original reason so many voters across the political spectrum don’t trust him. It’s worth revisiting as Roe v. Wade turns 42 and Romney contemplates a third run for the White House.
In 1994, Romney decided to run against Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. But first he had to win the Republican nomination.
Both Romney and his main rival, businessman John Lakian, were pro-choice, like most Massachusetts voters. But Romney signaled to pro-life activists in Republican circles that he might be a little bit less so. The Boston Herald reported that he opposed the Freedom of Choice Act, a bill that would have codified Roe v. Wade. He reportedly opposed Medicaid funding of abortion and support parental consent laws.
Shortly before the primary, the Boston Globe reported, “The leading antiabortion group in Massachusetts has endorsed Republican Mitt Romney for US senator even though Romney portrays himself as a strong supporter of abortion rights.” That group was Massachusetts Citizens for Life.
A mailing from the group said Romney was “light years better on the pro-life issues than the incumbent and although we would prefer a 100 percent pro-life candidate, in the real world we don’t have one. However, based on Sen. Kennedy’s record as a pro-abortion leader, a vote for Mitt Romney is the logical vote for those who value human life.”
The Massachusetts Citizens for Life document also said Romney “is not 100 percent pro-life, he is 100 percent better than our senior senator.”
Charles Manning, a political consultant for the Romney campaign, absurdly told the Boston Globe that the pro-life group endorsed Romney because he was so consistently pro-choice. “I think the reason they don’t trust Ted Kennedy is that he flip-flopped on abortion,” Manning said. “He was pro-life before Roe v. Wade and now he’s changed. Mitt has always been consistent in his pro-choice position and that’s why the group respects him.”
Manning then went on to say that Romney didn’t really oppose the Freedom of Choice Act, as Massachusetts Citizens for Life claimed, and would leave Medicaid funding of abortions up to the states. He stuck by Romney’s support for parental consent laws.
The other Republicans in the race didn’t think this was as clever as the Romney campaign apparently did. “I think he has waffled,” Janet Jeghalian, a candidate who had failed to qualify for the primary, told the Boston Globe. “At the time of the convention, he opposed public funding and he was clearly against the Freedom of Choice Act.”
Lakian was more blunt. “He pandered just enough to get the endorsement from the pro-life groups and now he tells me he would vote for the Freedom of Choice Act,” he fumed to the Globe. “It is just a goddamned lie.”
Romney crushed Lakian in the primary, winning over 80 percent of the vote, but the issue didn’t go away. “I am pro-choice,” Kennedy declared in a debate with Romney. “My opponent is multiple choice.” Romney could only reply that he was pro-choice “[a]nd you will not see me wavering on that, or be a multiple choice, thank you very much.”
Kennedy was reelected in November, thank you very much, and the multiple choice line stuck with Romney for years.
Romney took his act on the road, reportedly considering a run for governor of Utah, where he would save the 2002 Winter Olympics. “I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice,” he wrote in a 2001 letter to the Salt Lake Tribune. “Abortion is the wrong choice, but under the law it is a choice people have.”
A year later, Romney was back in Massachusetts running for governor. He was once again pro-choice. “Let me make this very clear: I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose,” Romney declared. He later asserted, “I do not take the position of a pro-life candidate.”
Romney denied accepting Massachusetts Citizens for Life’s endorsement. “When you say I accepted it, in what way did I accept it, Shannon?” he asked his Democratic opponent in a gubernatorial debate. He made a hand gesture like he was writing something and asked if he sent them a letter. Romney’s running mate insisted there wasn’t a “dime’s worth of difference” between his position and the Democrat’s on abortion.
Less than three years later, Romney wrote in the Boston Globe, “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.” Romney’s vanquished 2002 Democratic opponent told the Weekly Standard, “Apparently there was a lot more than a dime’s worth. Probably enough to put my daughter through college.”
After leaving office as governor in 2007, Romney donated $15,000 to Massachusetts Citizens for Life. By that time, he was running for the Republican presidential nomination.
Pro-life attorney James Bopp wrote that year in National Review that social conservatives should support Romney, partly because in “his 1994 Senate run, Romney was endorsed by Massachusetts Citizens for Life and kept their endorsement.” That’s the same endorsement Romney denied accepting less than five years earlier.
Coming full circle, a Massachusetts Citizens for Life official contacted me in 2011 to deny that the group ever endorsed Romney, despite numerous contemporaneous press accounts to the contrary, since they don’t endorse pro-choice candidates. Sure enough, one Globe story from 1994 quoted the head of their federal PAC as saying it wasn’t an endorsement, just a personal “comment” that “Mitt Romney is the only person who should get a vote from any pro-lifer.”
The following year, Massachusetts Citizens for Life endorsed pro-choice Sen. Scott Brown for reelection. “We consider him a senator who votes prolife,” the group’s president told the Boston Globe. “We have to take his word for it when he says he is prochoice.”
Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn said of Brown, “His heart is prolife.” Former Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey said, “Scott Brown is prochoice.” Both were Brown supporters.
Healey is the person who said there wasn’t a “dime’s worth of difference” between Romney and pro-choicers.
Personally, I don’t think a President Romney would be any better or worse than the average Republican from a pro-life perspective. But I do understand why people would look at this whole mess and conclude politics insults their intelligence.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.