A devastating new DNC ad this week has once again highlighted Mitt Romney's gymnastic flip-flops on the issue of abortion. Rushing to his defense, conservative Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker claimed his opportunism was instead deeply principled, declaring "Romney's own change of heart evolved not from personal experience but rather from a purposeful course of study."
If so, as recent events show, Mitt Romney wasn't a very good student of reproductive science. And as it turns out, Romney no longer mentions the "dear, close family relative" whose death from an illegal abortion once inspired his formerly "unwavering" pro-choice position.
In Parker's retelling of Mitt's pro-life creation myth, it was his "purposeful course of study" during the Massachusetts stem cell research debate of 2005 and 2006 that undid his 1994 and 2002 commitments to keep abortion "safe and legal."
"I know this because I know the man who instructed him in 2005 on the basics of embryonic life during the stem-cell research debate then taking place in Massachusetts."
That man was William Hurlbut, a physician and professor of biomedical ethics at Stanford University Medical School. It was "several hours" at Hurlbut's knee that taught Mitt Romney everything he needed to know about a woman's womb. As Hurlbut explained to Parker
"It was obvious that he had put in a real effort to understand both the scientific prospects and the broader social implications. Finally, I was impressed by both his clarity of mind and sincerity of heart. . . . He recognized that this was not a matter of purely abstract theory or merely pragmatic governance, but a crucial moment in how we are to regard nascent human life and the broader meaning of medicine in the service of life."
Ultimately, as the Boston Globe noted in 2007, Romney tried to find a middle ground. "He would fight efforts to clone human embryos for research, he said, but believed it was ethical to experiment on embryos left over from fertility treatments."Still, four years later, it seems that Romney's effort to "educate himself" left him confused. As ThinkProgress reported, during an October town hall meeting Mitt struggled to explain how his support for "personhood" laws wouldn't outlaw many forms of birth control. When he was asked, "98% of American women, including me, use birth control, so could you help me understand why you oppose the use of birth control?" Romney gave a surprising answer:
"I don't. I'm sorry. Life begins at conception and birth control prevents conception."
When his questioner pointed out that some hormonal forms of birth control "actually prevent implantation, not conception," a flummoxed Romney changed the subject.
But even more revealing about Mitt Romney the man is his white-washing of his own family history on abortion.
As Salon's Justin Elliott documented in "The Abortion That Mitt Doesn't Talk About Anymore," it was his own family story which informed his pro-choice position during his 1994 Senate run against Ted Kennedy. When Kennedy labeled him "Multiple Choice Mitt," during their debate, Romney responded with a tale of personal loss:
"On the idea of 'multiple-choice,' I have to respond. I have my own beliefs, and those beliefs are very dear to me. One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people. Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. 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."
Reading Kathleen Parker's account, you wouldn't know of the existence of Ann Keenan, the sister of Romney's brother-in-law who died at the age of 21 in 1963 after a botched, illegal abortion. Of course, as this 2007 exchange with Tim Russert showed, Mitt Romney no longer wants you to know about her, either:
RUSSERT: You talked about your family relative who died from an illegal abortion, and yet President Romney is saying is saying ban all abortion. And what would be the legal consequences to people who participated in that procedure?... So back to your relative.
Romney went on to explain the consequences (loss of license and possible prison time for doctors, though not patients) of his new found anti-abortion views. But he never did get back to his relative.
As it turns out, Mitt Romney also threw his mother under the right-wing's anti-abortion bus. When Governor Romney was challenged in 2005 about his mother Lenore's supposedly pro-choice views, he went so far as to re-release her statement from her own 1970 Michigan Senate run. But as the Globe's Joan Vennochi pointed out four years ago:
In response to the column, Romney produced a statement of his mother's position at the time: "I support and recognize the need for more liberal abortion rights while affirming the legal and medical measures need to protect the unborn and pregnant woman." The statement is ambiguous and Romney never accounted for the ambiguity.
He hasn't talked much about his mother since.It's worth noting that Mitt Romney's journey on reproductive rights is the exact opposite of most "Asterisk Republicans" whose personal experiences came to trump party orthodoxy. As Dick Cheney's loyalty to his lesbian daughter showed, marriage is an institution between one man and one woman unless either the man or the woman involved is related to a prominent member of the GOP. Fred Thompson and Tom Delay each made the decision to take a loved one off life-support, despite trying to prevent Michael Schiavo from exercising the same right. And Utah Senator Orrin Hatch changed his position on stem cell research because of "a little Utah boy - he was 4 years of age - who was brought to me."
In Mitt's Romney's defense, on abortion he is no asterisk Republican. Kathleen Parker's revisionist history notwithstanding, Romney at worst is a man with no core convictions at all and an unsurpassed political opportunist. At best, Mitt Romney fits the description his own adviser Michael Murphy bestowed upon him in 2005:
"He's been a pro-life Mormon faking it as a pro-choice friendly."