Pro-life advocates love a good conversion story. And in recent years they have cheered as a long list of politicians, celebrities, and former abortion facility workers have embraced the pro-life cause.
But there’s one man whose pro-life transformation many abortion opponents seem unwilling to accept: Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor and likely Republican presidential nominee followed a well-worn path from abortion advocacy to science-inspired pro-life awakening. But some pro-life candidates and commentators have remained skeptical about the authenticity of Romney’s conversion.
It’s no secret that Romney was once an emphatic supporter of abortion rights. Running for US Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, Romney declared that he was a “committed” pro-choice advocate, adding, “And you will not see me wavering on that.”
Romney was slightly more nuanced while running for Massachusetts governor in 2002, stating, “On a personal basis, I don’t favor abortion. However, as governor of the commonwealth, I will protect a woman’s right to choose under the laws of the country and the commonwealth. That’s the same position I’ve had for many years.”
Two years into his governorship, however, Romney changed to the pro-life position. In 2004, as his state debated public funding of embryonic stem cell research, Romney met with physicians, scientists and bio-ethicists to better understand the science and ethics involved.
“In considering the issue of embryo cloning and embryo farming,” he would later write, “I saw where the harsh logic of abortion can lead--to the view of innocent new life as nothing more than research material or a commodity to be exploited.”
Romney’s stem cell epiphany led him on a path to the pro-life position and to the realization that as governor “I simply could not be part of an effort that would cause the destruction of human life.”
Today Romney calls himself “firmly pro-life.” He believes Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationally, should be overturned, and he is committed to appointing judges who share that view. He says he would be “delighted” to sign a federal ban on abortion if Roe were overturned.
The science of life is changing hearts and minds.
Model Kathy Ireland read medical books to come to the pro-life view. “What I learned,” she told Mike Huckabee on his Fox News show in 2011, “was that at the moment of conception, a new life comes into being. The DNA, the genetic blueprint is there.”
Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood worker who is now a prominent pro-life activist, wrote in her autobiography that viewing an ultrasound of an abortion led to her sudden “change of heart.”
Dr. Bernard Nathanson’s odyssey from abortion pioneer to pro-life champion began when he saw an ultrasound in the late 1970s. “For the first time I began to think about what we really had been doing at the clinic,” he later wrote. “Ultrasound opened up a new world. For the first time, we could really see the human fetus, measure it, observe it, watch it, and indeed bond with it and love it. I began to do that… Having looked at the ultrasound, I could no longer go on as before.”
Then there’s Rick Santorum, who told Philadelphia magazine in 1995 that he “was basically pro-choice all my life, until I ran for Congress.” Then, he said, he “sat down and read… the scientific literature.”
Romney sometimes compares his pro-life conversion to that of President Ronald Reagan. It’s not a perfect comparison, but there are some remarkable similarities. Like Romney, Reagan was the Republican governor of a pro-choice state who faced the prospect of enacting a law that would lead to the destruction of innocent human life.
Just a few months into his term as governor of California in 1967, Reagan signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act, which permitted abortion when the mental or physical health of the mother was endangered or when statutory rape had occurred.
It was a liberal law, especially for that time, and the mental and physical health exceptions became loopholes that led to a surge in California’s abortion rate. But the law’s effects also led to a change in Reagan. As Dinesh D’Souza wrote in "Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader":
“[Reagan’s] subsequent private correspondence shows he was genuinely shocked by the magnitude of abortions under the new law. His subsequent correspondence suggests that he was intensely grieved by this outcome. Edwin Meese, a senior aide, told me that Reagan’s regrets over his role in promoting abortion on demand in California may have intensified his pro-life convictions and led him, as a presidential candidate, to support measures like the human life amendment, which would establish a blanket prohibition on abortion.”
Like Reagan, Romney is a contrite convert, referring to his past support for Roe as his life’s “defining mistake.” When challenged about his previous support for abortion in a Republican debate in December, he said “I changed my mind…I’m firmly pro-life…sometimes I’m wrong.”
Mitt Romney displays humility and gratitude in discussing his evolution on abortion. Skeptical pro-lifers should do the same in embracing him.
Former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families. Follow him on Twitter @GaryLBauer.