BOSTON -- Mitt Romney picked an unlikely backdrop for launching a 2008 presidential bid: his veto of an emergency contraception bill passed by the state legislature. The legislation requires hospitals to offer the "morning after" pill to patients -- a provision exempting Catholic institutions was stripped -- and makes it available without a prescription.
Initially, it appeared that Romney would reach for the moratorium justification. The Boston Herald reported that, in a letter to state House and Senate leaders, the governor said he had "promised the people of Massachusetts that as Governor I would not change the laws of the Commonwealth as they relate to abortion. The bill before me would change those laws and for that reason I am vetoing it."
Romney's reasoning: the morning-after pill doesn't just prevent conception; it can also act as an abortifacient. The bill didn't require minors to even notify their parents, thus circumventing the state's parental-consent laws.
Fair enough. Then Romney dropped a bombshell in a Tuesday Boston Globe op-ed piece. The governor repeated his pledge to maintain the abortion status quo in the Bay State -- no new restrictions, no further liberalization -- and then wrote, "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."
As personal views, this is nothing new. Romney has been describing himself as "personally pro-life" for some time. In 1994, he acknowledged that in his capacity as Mormon lay leader he counseled women against abortion except, the Globe reported, "in cases of rape, incest, or where the mother's life was at risk." In his controversial 2001 letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, he called abortion "the wrong choice" but allowed that "under the law, it is a choice people have."
What makes this op-ed different is the sentence that follows: "I wish the people of America agreed, and that the laws of our nation could reflect that view."
This is the first time Romney has articulated a desire for the law to reflect his anti-abortion sentiments. He has finally deleted the "personally" from his "personally pro-life" formulation.
Romney acknowledged that his abortion views put him "in the minority in our Commonwealth" and that the "nation remains so divided over abortion." His solution is to allow each state to democratically decide its own abortion policy rather than have them "dictated by judicial mandate."
Logically, this position means he should favor overturning Roe v. Wade. Romney came close to saying so when he wrote of the "bitterness and fierce anger" that continues to surround Roe and the futility of the Supreme Court's attempt to put the abortion debate to rest in Casey.
MAKE NO MISTAKE, THIS is a change in position. In the past, when Romney has contrasted his personal views with those of Massachusetts' pro-choice majority he has framed it as a difference over the morality of abortion, not its legality. When he said during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign that he was opposed to abortion "on a personal basis" but would "protect the right of a woman to choose," his spokesman described him as taking "exactly the same position as any other pro-choice politician."
Yet implied opposition to Roe, a belief that states should decide their abortion laws and the conviction that abortion should only be permitted in cases of rape and incest or to save the mother's life -- President Bush's pro-life position -- are hardly stances taken by a generic pro-choice pol.
But they might just be positions taken by a Republican presidential candidate with an ambiguously pro-choice record trying to reach out to his party's pro-life base. This rightward movement on abortion makes it seem less likely that Romney intends to run for re-election as governor in 2006. Massachusetts' only pro-life statewide elected official is Democratic Auditor Joseph DeNucci.
Moreover, the pro-life overtures Romney has made are of the kind that repels moderates. While they might feel differently if they understood the therapeutic cloning involved, most Bay Staters would instinctively side with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and its promise of cures against Romney's embryonic stem-cell research veto. And if partial-birth abortion makes pro-choicers appear extreme, opposition to emergency contraception legislation appears to pit Romney against birth control for rape victims -- in Massachusetts. Many politicians with a longer history of calling themselves pro-life would have stayed away from both of these issues (paradoxically, their records would give them the cover to do so).
In recent weeks, Romney's Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey has indicated her willingness to step into the breach by informing interviewers that she supports the emergency contraception bill and reiterating her pro-choice stand. Protesters gathered outside the governor's State House office and chanted, "Mitt Romney, we want the pill. Keep your word and sign the bill!"
Time will tell whether pro-lifers embrace Romney as a new convert. Pro-choicers are already reading him out of their ranks. ''I think he's more concerned about the opinions of Iowa caucus goers than the opinion of women in our state," NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts executive director Melissa Kogut told the Globe.
On this much, then, people on both sides of the abortion issue can agree: Mitt Romney has sent his strongest signal yet that he's looking beyond the Bay State.
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