Should prolife voters support Mitt Romney? By this I first mean “in the primaries” of course, but beyond that I mean to ask “ever.” Conversely, supporters of legal abortion should be equally repulsed by the former Massachusetts governor—as should anyone who takes the abortion issue seriously, or who wishes for a president possessed of a moral center. Let me explain.
Mitt Romney grew up in a church that opposes most abortions. He didn’t leave that faith—in fact, he served as a missionary and even became a bishop. He has throughout his career given an admirable portion of his income to Mormon charities, and become an important figure in his church. And good for him! Whatever outsiders might think of their theology, Mormons have proved among America’s hardest-working, most faithful citizens.
But Mitt Romney had a problem: He wanted to run for U.S. Senate, and he lived in Massachusetts. He rightly saw in his church’s stand on the sanctity of life a brick wall that would keep him from winning. So he found a way around it. He looked to models like Edward Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and declared that he was “personally opposed” to abortion, but would not seek to impose his private views on others. This stance, seen most among Democrats, was plausible to many in the 80s, who didn’t stop to think how they’d like a candidate who was only “personally” opposed to segregation or wife-beating.
Somehow, it became respectable to treat one’s proclaimed belief that unborn children are human beings as a mere sectarian quirk—akin to the kosher laws requiring two sets of dishes, or the Mormon aversion to Pepsi. Prof. Hadley Arkes of Amherst College does a better job than I can of ripping away this fig leaf, noting that the abolitionists, the Rev. Martin Luther King, and the pro-life movement all share a commitment to natural law—the insistence that legislation which violates human rights is invalid and must be repealed. No judicial precedent, social prejudice, or crass electoral calculus must blur the line in the human heart between right and wrong. To put things more simply, as Solzshenitsyn begged his readers: “Live not by lies.”
Mitt Romney disagreed. He thought whatever tweaks he could make to the federal budget, whatever pro-business legislation he could sponsor, were important enough to set aside the lives of millions of unborn Americans. He ran against Edward Kennedy in 1994 and lost.
In 2002, Romney ran again in Massachusetts, this time as the prochoice candidate for governor, and won. In office, he made no effort even to nip at the edges of Roe v. Wade—which made U.S. abortion laws the laxest in the world. After first defending the rights of religious hospitals to refuse, he flip-flopped and forced Catholic facilities to prescribe abortificient drugs—an eerie precedent to the Obama administration’s current war against the Church. Taking his opportunism to an almost artistic height, Romney went on to assure pro-choicers that he would be their “voice” in Republican politics.
After four years as governor, Romney’s ambition rose to the national stage, and he faced a very different obstacle: the solid, pro-life consensus that it took social conservatives almost 30 years to forge among Republicans. It was time to zig instead of zag. So Romney remembered that he’d always believed in protecting unborn children, and reinvented himself a second time as a prolifer. He has banged that drum loud enough for the past six years or so that even Ann Coulter believes him. Who knows? He may actually mean it. He seems sincere now—but then, he seemed sincere before. Which position is really his or ever was? There is literally no way to tell.
I have narrowed this issue down, and identified Three Possible Romneys. It is plain that just one of the following men really exists, and is running for president:
a) The Empty Vessel: This Mitt Romney was sincere at every step in his political career. He actually changed his mind about the proper legal status of unborn children, and the rights of women, twice in his adult life—at each point when doing so proved eerily convenient. However, he was not on any of these occasions deceiving anyone, even himself. His moral compass really is that… pliable, like one of Salvador Dali’s melting watches.
b) The Manchurian Candidate: This second possible Romney has always had a firm, fixed moral conviction on this issue, and to advance it he was willing to deceive people at one moment in his career—we just can’t be sure which moment. Prolifers can hope that he was lying to Massachusetts voters, while prochoicers can hope he is lying now.
c) The Mercenary: This last Mitt Romney really doesn’t care about unborn children or women’s autonomy one way or the other. He greets it with a shrug, like the contractor who paints your house any color you like, or the lawyer who’ll represent any client with a suitcase full of cash.
Of these three possible Romneys, I’m not sure which is the creepiest. I don’t want any of these guys to be president, and if any of them gets the nomination, I and thousands of other prolife voters will sit this election out—not just because of what Romney’s shifty history will mean for abortion politics, but for what it says about his character. Which ever of these characters Romney is, I don’t want his finger on the button.
In rejecting a party nominee, we follow a historic precedent: Mitt Romney’s father, Michigan Governor George Romney, refused to back Barry Goldwater when he won the nomination in 1964. He didn’t trust Barry, and we can’t trust Mitt. As president, who knows how he would act when it came time to choose Supreme Court nominees, and he faced a resistant Senate, or some other obstacle to his ambition? With Romney’s track record of changing his spots, there’s no telling what shade he’ll take on.
Prochoice voters should be equally repulsed by Romney’s casual game of moral badminton with women’s choices (and unborn lives) as the shuttlecock. This isn’t a garden party, or a shoot for the J.Crew catalog. The least important thing at stake is one man’s ambition. But that’s the only consistent value Mitt Romney has always served.
On one thing prochoice and prolife Americans can agree: The issue matters. Either abortion is a fundamental human right which every woman deserves for the sake of her liberty and autonomy, or it’s a crime against unborn children. The one thing it’s not is a pair of Cole-Haan slippers, which a candidate can slide on or off, depending on the weather.
A candidate who’d do that is no one to lead a party to victory, especially against a president whose base is fervently committed, whose popularity (once low) is rising as the economy recovers, who has at his disposal the sympathy of most media, and all the resources of a mighty party machine. Against that kind of dogged opponent Republicans would be fools to field the candidate who is everyone’s second choice, whose convictions are uncertain and untrustworthy, whose only qualification for being president is a single term as governor—an office Mitt Romney won by selling his conscience. Or renting it. Or maybe by never having one. There is simply no way to tell.