Romney's Pro-Life Conversion: Myth or Reality?

After 'Epiphany' on Abortion, He Named a Pro-Choice Judge and Supported Stem Cell Research


June 14, 2007 —

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has long cited a November 2004 meeting with a Harvard stem cell researcher as the moment that changed his long-held stance of supporting abortion rights to his current "pro-life" position opposing legal abortion.

But several actions Romney took mere months after that meeting call into question how deep-seated his conversion truly was.

Within two months of his epiphany on this issue, Romney appointed to a judgeship a Democrat who was an avowed supporter of abortion rights. In May 2005, Romney also declared his support for a House bill lifting President Bush's ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research -- a bill he now said he opposes.

Romney's Campaign Narrative

The November 2004 meeting is a crucial part of Romney's campaign narrative as he explains why he backed away from his long-standing support for abortion rights shortly before he began his quest for the presidency.

"It struck me very powerfully at that point, that the Roe v. Wade approach has so cheapened the value of human life that someone could think it's not a moral issue to destroy embryos that have been created solely for the purpose of research," he said at a campaign stop earlier this year in South Carolina. "I said to my chief of staff, and that's been two and a half years ago, I said to her, 'I want to make it very clear that I'm pro-life.'"

But just two months after he switched his position on abortion, Romney nominated a Democrat who ran for the state legislature as a "pro-choice" candidate to a perch on a state district court.

A 'Pro-Choice' Candidate

Matthew J. Nestor, a longtime Democrat who headed the Division of Securities under the Democratic secretary of state, was confirmed in March 2005 to serve in a lifetime post on the Somerville District Court.

When he ran for a state representative's seat as a self-described "conservative Democrat" in 1994, Nestor made clear that he considered himself "pro-choice," according to news reports from the time.

Romney aides note that Nestor was a career prosecutor who was not outspoken about his political beliefs. In addition, they say, Romney viewed posts in district courts -- which deal with criminal and civil matters but rarely if ever decide issues of constitutional rights -- differently than he did appellate court judgeships.

"The two main considerations were experience and having someone who was going to be tough on crime and able to handle the incredibly hectic pace of a busy district court," said Peter Flaherty, Romney's deputy campaign manager and a deputy chief of staff while Romney was governor. "Matt Nestor's credentials and qualifications for a district court post are unimpeachable."

The Role of Judicial Appointments

Few issues are as important to social conservative activists as judicial appointments. Romney and the other major Republican candidates have vowed to appoint "strict constructionist" judges to federal courts if elected president -- presumably, though not certainly, judges who would be open to reversing Roe v. Wade.

And no legislative issue has been more compelling to anti-abortion activists in recent years than the fight over funding for embryonic stem cell research, which has passed the House and Senate twice and likely faces its second presidential veto next week.

Both issues are likely to get more scrutiny in the campaign, including at the National Right to Life Convention which kicked off Thursday morning in Kansas City, Mo., and where Romney is set to speak Friday. The very first presentation to the convention was entitled, "How the Politics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research Has Corrupted Science."

Romney's appointment of a judge who supports abortion rights is likely to sound alarms with many social conservatives, who view issues of judicial appointments as critical to candidates' fitness to serve as president, said Keith Appell, a Republican strategist who is not aligned with any of the presidential candidates.

"This would appear to be evidence that he bowed to political pressures instead of following his supposed judicial philosophy, and that's what the conservative base of the Republican party is very leery of," Appell said. "If you espouse a certain judicial philosophy, your appointments should reflect it."

If he was still taking actions that appear to reflect his old, "pro-choice" views after November 2004, it raises an important question for Republicans, Appell said. "It's part of Romney's challenge: How many epiphanies have you had?" he said.

A Romney Flashpoint

Romney's shifting positions on abortion have become a major flashpoint in the Republican presidential campaign. He ran for Senate in 1994 and governor in 2002 promising to protect abortion rights, but disavowed that view as he began preparations for a presidential run.

This week, the campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., blasted Romney for saying in May 2005 that he was "absolutely committed to my promise to maintain the status quo with regard to laws relating to abortion and choice" -- six months after his position changed on abortion.

The quote came in the context of Romney's veto of a Massachusetts law providing state funding for embryonic stem cell research, which the Romney campaign highlighted in its response to the McCain attack.

Romney's Position on Stem Cell Research

But while drawing attention to that veto, the Romney campaign also showed another issue that Romney has changed positions on -- his support for the federal bill lifting the ban on funding embryonic stem cell research.

"The United States House of Representatives voted for a bill that was identical to what I proposed," Romney said at a statehouse press conference in May 2005. "They voted to provide for surplus embryos from in vitro fertilization processes to be used for research and experimentation. That's what I have said I support. That's what they have just supported."

Romney then explained that he issued his veto because the state bill went farther than the federal bill since it allowed human cloning and the creation of embryos for the purpose of research, as opposed to using discarded embryos from in vitro fertilization.

"What is done in Washington is consistent with what I have said I support which is using surplus embryos from fertilization processes," he said then. "So it would be helpful if people pointed out that in fact what the U.S. House of Representatives is doing is exactly what Gov. Romney proposed."

Scarcely two years later, former Gov. Romney now said he would oppose that House bill.

Romney's presidential campaign explains that when he was declaring his support for the House bill, he was focused on which kinds of embryonic stem cell research it would have allowed, and was not talking about taxpayer funding, which the Massachusetts bill did not address.

"While the governor opposes federal funding for that particular research," said deputy campaign manager Flaherty, "he does encourage and support federal funding for alternative methods to obtain pluripotent stem cells, like direct programming and altered nuclear transfer."

The House Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, offered by Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., was a short piece of legislation, amending the Public Health Service Act to require the Secretary of Health and Human Services "to conduct and support research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells" as long as the embryos met certain requirements: created for the purposes of fertility treatments, extra and never would have been implanted in a woman, donated for free from in vitro fertilization clinics and destined to be discarded.

Other Questions Arise

Romney has faced other questions about his judicial appointments. A July 2005 Boston Globe analysis found that Romney nominated registered Republicans for only one-fourth of the 36 judicial vacancies he filled during his first 2 1/2 years as governor. The personal abortion views of most of those nominees are not known, since most had no previous judicial writings and were private citizens before becoming judges.

The Globe found that Romney's nominees included two longtime gay rights advocates; one was a former board member of the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association. Romney had no opportunities to make appointments to the state's supreme court -- the panel that made Massachusetts the only state in the nation to recognize gay marriages -- during his four years as governor.

Romney aides point out that he was governing in a heavily Democratic state when naming judges. All judicial nominations are confirmed by the independently elected -- and all-Democratic -- Governor's Council, though the council has very rarely rejected any governor's selections.

"By virtue of the sheer numbers, the pool of Republican applicants is going to be significantly smaller," Flaherty said.

While acknowledging that he held a functionally "pro-choice" position before December 2004, Romney has also claimed to have governed from a "pro-life" standpoint throughout his term as governor.

"I believe people will see that as governor, when I had to examine and grapple with this difficult issue, I came down on the side of life," Romney said in a December 2006 interview with National Review Online. "I'm committed to promoting the culture of life."