Romney Struggles to Define Abortion Stance

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said this week that as president he would allow individual states to keep abortion legal, two weeks after telling a national television audience that he supports a constitutional amendment to ban the procedure nationwide.

In an interview with a Nevada television station on Tuesday, Romney said Roe. v. Wade should be abolished and vowed to "let states make their own decision in this regard." On Aug. 6, he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he supports a human life amendment to the Constitution that would protect the unborn.

"I do support the Republican platform, and I do support that being part of the Republican platform, and I'm pro-life," Romney said in the ABC interview, broadcast days before his victory among conservative Iowa voters in the Ames straw poll.

The two very different statements reflect the challenge for Romney, who has reinvented himself as a champion of the antiabortion movement in recent years and is seeking to become the conservative alternative to former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.

Critics, including his GOP rivals, have questioned his commitment to the antiabortion cause, contrasting his statements as a pro-abortion-rights governor earlier this decade with his antiabortion rhetoric as a presidential candidate.

As a result, his comments on the subject are parsed carefully, particularly by the other Republican candidates and abortion activists. Jon Ralston, the Las Vegas Sun columnist who interviewed Romney on KLAS television, said he was surprised by the governor's answer.

"I thought that was a perfect example of Mitt Romney trying to thread a needle that's very difficult to thread," Ralston said in an interview yesterday. "I don't see how you can be antiabortion, be in favor of a constitutional amendment and be in favor of states' rights. . . . I don't see how you do it."

Top Romney advisers insisted yesterday that their candidate's statements on abortion this month were consistent with each other. They said Romney supports a two-step process in which states get authority over abortion after Roe v. Wade is overturned, followed eventually by a constitutional amendment that bans most abortions.

James Bopp Jr., a top Romney adviser on the issue and a lawyer who has represented antiabortion organizations for decades, said Romney shares the aspirations of the antiabortion movement while understanding that its goals will not be achieved overnight.

"There's no flip-flopping. There's no contradiction. There's simply step one and step two," said Bopp, who has helped to shape the GOP's official stance on abortion since 1980. "When he says he favors reversal of Roe v. Wade, that's what I want to happen. I pray that will happen. Am I in favor of 14th Amendment protections applying to the unborn? Well, yeah, ultimately."

Abortion has proved a thorny issue for all of the leading Republican candidates for president this year, with each being challenged to reassure doubtful conservatives and confront charges of flip-flopping on an issue of moral conviction.

Giuliani was assailed earlier this year for appearing to waffle on his long-standing support for abortion during the first Republican debate. Giuliani later reaffirmed his desire to keep abortion legal but frequently says he would appoint "strict constructionist" judges to the Supreme Court -- code among many conservatives for wanting to ban abortion.

Abortion opponents have also questioned the views of former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), whose entrance into the presidential contest is expected within weeks. As a lobbyist, Thompson once represented a national abortion rights group, a revelation that stood in sharp contrast with his antiabortion record in Congress.

But none has been as scrutinized as Romney, who has admitted being "effectively pro-choice" as governor of Massachusetts until confronting stem cell legislation midway through his term in office.

In his failed 1994 bid to unseat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Romney declared: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country." Later, as governor, he vowed to defend the state law protecting abortion rights.

But in an article he penned in the Boston Globe in 2005, he explained his change of heart and declared himself firmly opposed to abortion.

"I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother. I wish the people of America agreed, and that the laws of our nation could reflect that view," Romney wrote. "But while the nation remains so divided over abortion, I believe that the states, through the democratic process, should determine their own abortion laws and not have them dictated by judicial mandate."

That explanation has not satisfied his harshest critics, among them Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), whom Romney trounced in the recent Iowa straw poll. Brownback continues to criticize Romney's abortion position in hopes of winning over antiabortion voters in early-voting states, saying last week that Romney has "moved back and forth over the years, and on a core topic."

Ralston said that Romney's answer to his questions this week left him wondering whether the presidential candidate wants to eventually ban abortions nationwide. He said Romney's explanation is "clever, isn't it?"

"His moral positions conflict, I think, with his states'-rights opinions," Ralston said. "That's why he struggles to come up with an answer."

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