The definitive abortion history of Mitt Romney

His amazingly convenient evolution on the issue is no ordinary tale of flip-floppery

Topics: Mitt Romney, War Room,

The definitive abortion history of Mitt RomneyMitt Romney during his 2002 run for governor of Massachusetts

How do you get from establishing your pro-choice bona fides by solemnly invoking the pre-Roe v. Wade story of a “dear, close family relative who was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion” to adamantly demanding a return to the legal conditions that contributed to that relative’s tragic death?

That’s the leap that Mitt Romney made, and — as Salon’s Justin Elliott documented this week in a piece that told the story of Romney’s relative for the first time — he’s never really squared the implications of his new position with the searing anecdote he told back in his first Massachusetts campaign, in 1994.

Some suspect Romney has always been pro-life, and that he only pretended to support abortion rights to get ahead in Massachusetts. Others wonder if he might still secretly be pro-choice, and only pretending to be pro-life to succeed in national GOP politics. But a close examination of his evolution on this issue suggests an even more cynical conclusion: that he doesn’t believe anything at all. During his 17-year political career, Romney has actually changed his tune on abortion multiple times — and always in a way that suited his political needs.

Here’s the history:

1994: Romney, a largely unknown business executive from the Boston suburbs, seeks and wins the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. There is a pro-life faction in the state GOP, but the party is publicly defined by a moderate-to-liberal sensibility on cultural issues. All three of its statewide elected officials — Gov. Bill Weld, Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci and state Treasurer Joe Malone (a recent convert) — are pro-choice, as is one of the state’s two GOP congressional representatives (Peter Torkildsen). This supposedly is the winning formula for a Republican in blue state Massachusetts, and Romney embraces it.  

But his Mormonism and a primary season statement that he opposed federally funded abortions prompts some suspicion — stoked by Democrats — that he is not the strong supporter of abortion rights he claims to be. Romney counters this by shifting his position on public funding (embracing federally funded abortion for the victims of rape and incest and arguing that states should be free to pay for abortions for poor women) and by using his first televised debate with Kennedy to tell the story of his deceased relative, insisting that “you will not see me wavering on this”:

After briefly leading Kennedy after the September primary, Romney loses the election by 17 points — but abortion doesn’t seem to be the reason. After the ’94 race, he considers running for the Senate again in 1996, against Democrat John Kerry, but ultimately yields to Weld. In 1999, with no immediate political openings on the horizon in Massachusetts, he agrees to take over the troubled Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

2001: Romney is greeted warmly in Utah and wins rave reviews in the local press for his work — stirring talk that he might stick around after the games and seek office in Utah. Specifically, talk centers around the governorship, which is expected to be open in 2004, when Republican Michael Leavitt’s third term is due to expire.

In the middle of 2001, this seems like it may be Romney’s best bet if he wants to win elected office. Back in Massachusetts, a Republican (Jane Swift) has just taken over as acting governor, and is expected to run with the party’s backing for a full term in 2002. (There is some talk that Romney might challenge her, but he publicly shrugs it off.) And Kennedy and Kerry are safely locked into their Senate seats. But to have any chance in Utah, Romney will have to change his abortion position. The state is far, far more conservative than Massachusetts and the Utah GOP uses a convention dominated by the far right to hand out its nominations. This is the context in which Romney pens a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake Tribune in the summer of 2001, disputing the paper’s characterization of him as a supporter of abortion rights. “I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice,” the letter reads. The statement seems intentionally cryptic — allowing Romney to potentially remake himself as a full-fledged pro-lifer if he decides to run in Utah, but still leaving enough wiggle room to return to Massachusetts as an abortion rights supporter if he so desires.

2002: When the Olympics end, Romney is hailed as a national hero. At the same time, Swift’s poll numbers in Massachusetts collapse. Her governorship is a disaster and the state GOP quickly sets its sights on Romney as its savior. Romney obliges, letting party leaders and fundraisers muscle Swift out of the way, then returning to Massachusetts in March and jumping in the gubernatorial race. Quizzed about his letter to the editor the previous summer, Romney plays dumb: Of course he supports abortion rights — he just doesn’t like labels!

But the context of this race is different from 1994. Now, thanks to his Olympic role, Romney has national aspirations. But this is tricky: Running as a pro-choicer is smart politics in Massachusetts, but it’s suicide at the national GOP level. So this time around, Romney is far more delicate in how he addresses the subject. The death of his relative is not invoked. He talks more about the idea of respecting the state’s abortion laws, and less about his own belief that those laws are just. 

In an effort to flush him out, his Democratic opponent, Shannon O’Brien, moves to his left, arguing against parental consent laws. But in the campaign’s pivotal debate, Romney skillfully turns the tables on her, insisting that he is just as committed as she is to protecting a woman’s right to choose and claiming that the only difference is “with regard to 18-year-old — or 16-year-old — consent.” During the same debate, Romney claims that in his ’01 letter to the editor in Utah, he had said that “I don’t accept either label — pro-choice or pro-life.” This is not true. The letter had only said that he rejected the pro-choice label. Moderator Tim Russert points this out, but Romney ignores him:

Romney satisfies the state’s swing voters that he is not a closet conservative on cultural issues and wins the election by 7 points.

2004: Romney’s efforts to rebuild the Massachusetts Republican Party blow up in his face, with the GOP – already barely a factor on Beacon Hill — actually losing seats in state legislative elections, despite a lavish campaign that Romney helped fund and organize. This comes just months after the state’s Supreme Judicial Court declared gay marriage legal, a ruling that put the state in the national spotlight on an issue that conservatives care deeply about. As the year ends, Romney seems to choose between his state and national imperative, embracing conservative views he’d previously shied away from. In 2005, he vetoes a contraception bill and declares himself pro-life. That same year, he spends dozens of days out of the state laying the groundwork for a 2008 White House campaign, and — with his in-state poll numbers dropping — he announces at the end of ’05 that he won’t seek a second term the next year.

2006: Edging closer to a formal announcement of his presidential campaign, Romney trots out his abortion conversion story, claiming that he decided to become pro-life during a private meeting in late 2004 with a Harvard stem cell scientist, Douglas Melton. In Romney’s  story, he was horrified when Melton cavalierly told him, “Look, you don’t have to think about this stem cell research as a moral issue, because we kill the embryos after 14 days.”

If that sounds a little too tailor-made for Romney’s new target audience — the Ivy League-wary cultural conservatives who loom large in national GOP  politics — it may not be a coincidence: Melton emphatically denies ever saying such a thing to Romney. But it almost doesn’t matter: Romney, it seems, has found a new compelling personal anecdote to replace his old one.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>