Romney and Plan B: The Santorum and Gingrich claims

at 06:02 AM ET, 02/08/2012


(RICK WILKING/REUTERS)

“This is not the first time that elected officials have trounced on the fundamental right to religious freedom. In December 2005, Governor Mitt Romney required all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims. He said then that he believed ‘in his heart of hearts’ that receiving these contraceptives — free of charge — trumped employees’ religious consciences. Now, a few years later and running for president, his heart is strategically aligned with religious voters opposing this federal mandate.”

— Former senator Rick Santorum, in an opinion article for Politico, Feb. 7, 2012

“There has been a lot of talk about the Obama administration’s attack on the Catholic church. The fact is Governor Romney insisted that Catholic hospitals give out abortion pills against their religious belief when he was governor. So you have a similar pattern.”

— Newt Gingrich, speaking in Cincinnati, Feb. 7, 2012

With GOP front-runner Mitt Romney attacking President Obama over the administration’s new rule requiring many Catholic institutions to offer birth control and other contraception services as part of employees’ health care coverage, his Republican rivals have begun attacking Romney for allegedly doing the very same thing when he was governor of Massachusetts.

We seem forever doomed to delve deep into ancient Bay State political tussles. It is well known that Romney’s views on abortion issues evolved as he edged closer to a presidential run in 2008. But is it correct that he “insisted” (Gingrich’s word) or “required” (Santorum’s word) that Catholic hospitals provide access to emergency contraception?

The Facts

At issue is the emergency contraception known as the morning-after pill, or Plan B, which is essentially a heavy dose of birth control pills that a woman takes after unprotected sex. It is generally effective only for the few days after intercourse but some anti-abortion advocates believe that it could thin the lining of a uterus and thus in theory could destroy a fertilized egg. (UPDATE: The New York Times reported in June, 2012 that a review of studies found no evidence that the pill affected fertilized eggs.)

In one of his most controversial acts as governor, Romney actually vetoed a law to make Plan B readily available over the counter and to rape victims treated at area hospitals. But his veto was quickly overturned by the Massachusetts legislature, and the bill became law. (A more cynical take is that Romney took no position on the bill and then only vetoed it when he knew his veto would be overridden.)

Massachusetts law had previously held that hospitals had the right, for reasons of conscience, to not offer birth control services. But in writing the new law, legislators did not include wording in the bill explicitly repealing that clause, according to news reports at the time.

What happened next is a fascinating case study in how carefully Romney sometimes can thread the needle on difficult political issues. Romney’s Public Health Department decided the old law remained in effect and Catholic hospitals were exempt.

We will let the news accounts of the time tell the story.

Boston Globe, Dec. 7, 2005:

Romney’s communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom, said the governor felt that the decision made sense because it “respects the views of healthcare facilities that are guided by moral principles on this issue.”
Fehrnstrom and [and the public health director] said the governor had not pressured the department to come up with its legal interpretation.
“The staff at DPH did their own objective and unbiased legal analysis,” Fehrnstrom said in an e-mail. “They brought it to us, and we concur with it.”

[An uproar ensued, with even Romney’s lieutenant governor objecting to the position. The state Attorney General also said the new law was clear. It was evident legal challenges would be made.]

Associated Press, Dec. 8, 2005:

“My own view is that every hospital should provide to rape victims information about emergency contraception, or emergency contraception itself,” [Romney] said. “But, again, we have to follow the law.”
He criticized lawmakers for not clearing up the discrepancy between the two laws, but he would not say whether he’d sign a bill making changes to the older law.

Associated Press, Dec. 8, 2005 (later in the day):

Gov. Mitt Romney abandoned plans Thursday to exempt Roman Catholic and other private hospitals from a new law requiring them to dispense emergency contraception to rape victims.
Romney had initially backed regulations proposed earlier this week by his public health commissioner, Paul Cote Jr., who said the new law conflicted with an older law barring the state from forcing private hospitals to dispense contraceptive devices or information.
The Republican governor, who is considering a run for president in 2008, said he asked his legal advisers to review the matter after members of both parties criticized the regulations. He said the lawyers determined that the new law superseded the old law and that all hospitals should be required to offer the so-called “morning-after pill.”
“On that basis I have instructed the Department of Public Health to follow the conclusion of my own legal counsel and to adopt that sounder view,” Romney said

Boston Herald (editorial), Dec. 9, 2005:

Flip, flop, flip.
Yes, Gov. Mitt Romney has now executed an Olympic-caliber double flip-flop with a gold medal-performance twist-and-a-half on the issue of emergency contraception.
***
For the sponsors of the bill and the folks at Planned Parenthood, that [earlier] view set their hair on fire - and understandably so. In passing the bill, lawmakers didn’t intend to exempt anyone — in fact, they explicitly rejected a “conscience” amendment giving religious hospitals an out clause. Trouble is, an existing law says the state can’t force private hospitals to perform abortions or provide contraception. That law gave the governor a major loophole to exploit.
But that was Wednesday. By Thursday, Romney said he consulted with his legal counsel (He might have done THAT a tad earlier!) and concluded that the new law superseded the old one.
It’s no secret Mitt Romney would like to be president. But who would have thought he’d take John Kerry as his campaign role model?

So, in the space of 24 hours, Romney went from accepting one recommendation, to inviting the legislature to change the law (without saying if he would sign the bill), to accepting the exact opposite recommendation.

In other words, Romney quickly cut his political losses. If he had wanted to fight for the original position, he probably would have been quickly overruled by the legislature.

Perhaps the most revealing comment at the time about his feelings—which Santorum highlighted—was this: “My personal view, in my heart of hearts, is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information.’’

Fehrnstrom, now a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, emphasized the “or” on Tuesday. “The Governor’s statement speaks for itself — he believes rape victims should have access to either Plan B or information on where to obtain it,” he said. “That latter part of his statement is consistent with the practice of Catholic hospitals, at least in Massachusetts.”

The Pinocchio Test

One could accuse Romney of taking calculated political positions. He clearly seems to have taken one position, only to abandon it quickly when there was little political support for it. He certainly did not defend the original position very long, virtually inviting lawmakers to fix the law.

But while his pretzel-twisting certainly allows all sides to pick the set of facts that favors their position, it is a stretch for Santorum and Gingrich to claim he demanded this shift or imposed this on hospitals, in what they characterize as an attack on religion.

Two Pinocchios




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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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