A Conversion With
The past few months have proven challenging for Mitt Romney, as he has tried to square his earlier support for abortion rights as a candidate and governor in Massacusetts with his more recent avowal of a firm anti-abortion position as he pursues the Republican presidential nomination.
But if history is a guide, a shift on abortion can be completed without catastrophic harm to a Republican presidential candidacy. Romney is well aware of this -- when speaking at the Right to Life Committee's annual convention in June, he declared, "I proudly follow a long line of converts -- George H.W. Bush, Ronald Regan, Henry Hyde, just to name a few. I'm evidence that your relentless campaign to promote the sanctity of human life bears fruit."
So how did some of these earlier converts close the sale?
Reagan may have had an easier time of it, said Heritage Foundation scholar Lee Edwards, who penned one of the first Reagan biographies in the late 1960s. That may be because Reagan never declared himself a supporter of abortion rights in the manner that Romney did during the early days of his tenure as Massachusetts governor. The perception that Reagan changed positions stems from a controversial decision Reagan made while governor of California in 1967 to sign legislation easing the state's restrictions on abortion.
Reagan was hardly a champion of the bill, as a June 16, 1967 UPI wire service account makes clear, recounting that the governor "reluctantly" signed the bill to legalize abortion when a child's birth would endanger the physical or mental health of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest. The wire service described an agonized governor: "Mr. Reagan had changed his mind twice earlier this week on the measure, first backing down from a pledge to sign it, and then deciding that he would approve it." He refused to sign the measure until lawmakers removed a provision that would permit an abortion when a child is likely to be born deformed, saying that notion was "only a step away from what Hitler tried to do."
Not long after the measure became law, Edwards said, Reagan made clear he "deeply regretted signing the bill" and "took a much more openly pro-Life position starting in 1976," the year he mounted an insurgent bid from the right to try and topple Gerald Ford.
Romney's positioning on abortion appears to track much more closely with that of the first President Bush, who in a 1980 interview said of the Roe vs. Wade decision, "I happen to think it was right." Bush had worked closely with Planned Parenthood on family planning legislation while in congress, and Reagan's decision to put him on the 1980 presidential ticket had garnered strong objections from the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee.
But after joining the ticket, Bush began altering his rhetoric, saying his position had begun changing as he became increasingly alarmed by the number of abortions being performed each year.
The Houston Chronicle described a moment in a 1984 debate against Geraldine Ferraro, when Bush was reminded of his earlier positions. He replied, "You know, there has been -- I have to make a confession -- an evolution in my position."
Romney faces a very different field than did Bush in 1980. Frontrunner Rudolph Giuliani has affirmed his support for keeping abortion legal -- a position forged during his years as mayor of New York. Abortion opponents have also questioned the views of former Senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), whose entrance into the presidential contest is expected within weeks. As a lobbyist, Thompson once represented a national abortion rights group, a revelation that stood in sharp contrast with his record in Congress.
Whether the "evolution" formulation will work for Romney as it did for Bush is a question that will have to wait for the voters to answer.
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