BOSTON — Turnaround is the title of Mitt Romney’s book about his tenure as president of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. The former Massachusetts governor is credited for rescuing the games from scandal and the brink of financial ruin.
Now, both supporters and opponents of Romney’s candidacy for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination might use “turnaround” to describe his position on issues such as abortion and homosexual “marriage.”
Romney, who announced his candidacy Feb. 13, has described himself as the conservative candidate, declaring his opposition to abortion and winning praise from many traditional family advocates. They cite his leadership in countering the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling which declared the state’s marriage statute unconstitutional because it does not permit same-sex “marriage.”
One prominent supporter is James Bopp, legal counsel for the National Right to Life Committee.
“In one of our country’s most liberal states, Mitt Romney has acted to protect the sanctity of life,” said Bopp, a member of the Republican National Committee.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for Romney who served as his communications director when Romney was governor, said that the candidate is “pleased with Mr. Bopp’s support and he will be a primary adviser on life issues as we go forward.”
Yet Romney’s critics cite his earlier support for legal abortion and question the depth of his commitment to traditional marriage.
“Despite his recent professed conversion to the pro-life side of the debate after more than 30 years of supporting Roe v. Wade and legal abortion, when it comes to respect for the sanctity of human life, Mitt Romney is on the wrong side,” said Colleen Parro, head of Republican National Coalition for Life.
“He is the Republican version of Bill Clinton,” said Laurie Letourneau, a former board member for Massachusetts Citizens for Life and a past co-chairwoman of Life-Guard PAC, a political action committee for electing pro-life legislators. She was honored by the Massachusetts Family Institute as Citizen of the Year in 2002 for her leadership and activism in getting more than 3,000 signatures on a petition to allow the voters to amend by referendum the state’s constitution, defining marriage exclusively as the union of one man and one woman.
“He is a political chameleon, changing his position according to what suits him politically,” Letourneau said, “and always sounding heartfelt while doing it.”
Massachusetts right-to-life and traditional marriage advocates are divided on Romney. In early February, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., also a declared candidate for the Republican nomination, announced the names of a half-dozen such Massachusetts advocates who are supporting him rather than Romney.
“Romney is not a pro-lifer in any way,” said Roderick Murphy, who organized the group of Massachusetts advocates for Brownback. Murphy is a co-founder of Life-Guard PAC and a crisis pregnancy center in Worcester, Mass. “Nor did he show any leadership for traditional values during most of his time as governor.”
Change of Heart
Nevertheless, in January nine leaders in right-to-life and pro-family circles signed a letter thanking Romney for his efforts. These leaders included Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon as well as officials from Morality in Media of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Citizens for Life, and the state Knights of Columbus.
“For four years Governor Romney has been right there beside us — providing leadership on key issues,” the letter reads.
Romney’s critics cite his history of support for legal abortion in his unsuccessful 1992 challenge of Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and his successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign.
“Romney’s actions have to be seen in context,” Bopp said. Though Romney ran as a supporter of legal abortion in Massachusetts, where few statewide elected officials oppose abortion, he frequently acted in defense of life while governor.
“On each of the issues that came before him,” such as his vetoes of an emergency contraceptive bill and of a bill for human cloning for embryonic stem-cell research, Fehrnstrom said, “he came down on the side of life.”
The cloning issue, he continued, led to Romney’s change of heart.
“It just hit me hard just how much the sanctity of life had been cheapened by virtue of the Roe v. Wade mentality,” Romney was quoted as saying in a National Review Online interview.
Romney compared himself to other Republican leaders, such as former President Ronald Reagan, who also came out against legal abortion after once supporting it.
2 Ways of Looking At It
Similar disagreements surround Romney’s record on the question of marriage for homosexual persons. His critics cite a 1994 letter in which Romney wrote to activists vowing to make “equality for gay and lesbians a mainstream concern.”
As for Massachusetts allowing same-sex “marriage” after the Judicial Court’s 2003 decision, Letourneau and others fault Romney for allowing it to happen. “He did nothing to stop it,” she said, noting that she had gathered numerous signatures to push for a referendum to amend the state constitution before the decision came down.
Once the ruling came down, she argued, Romney could have hindered its implementation, such as ordering justices of the peace not to perform such ceremonies. Instead, she said, he ordered them to perform those ceremonies.
Fehrnstrom acknowledged that Romney has opposed discrimination against persons who are homosexual. “The governor believes that all people should be treated equally.”
However, Romney “always believed that marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said. When the state Supreme Court ruled otherwise, Fehrnstrom said, “Romney enforced a ‘residents-only’ policy that stopped same-sex couples from other states from coming to Massachusetts to get ‘married,’ which prevented ‘gay marriage’ from being visited on every other state in the nation.”
In addition, Fehrnstrom noted that Romney, along with the activism of many citizens across Massachusetts, has been able to move along legislation to force a referendum on a proposal to define marriage as between and a man and woman.
Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn has also weighed in amid the clashing interpretations of Romney’s record. Flynn, a Democrat who served as ambassador to the Holy See, opposes abortion and has worked to restore the traditional definition of marriage.
He agreed that Romney got involved in efforts to overturn the court’s marriage ruling somewhat belatedly, but his involvement eventually was strong “and I think it was decisive.” As for Romney’s opposition to abortion, Flynn acknowledged the doubts of many staunch opponents of abortion. “There is reason for doubt,” he said.
“But I think you have to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Flynn said, as well as continuing to scrutinize Romney’s actions closely.
“It’s certainly better than all the people on the other side, who for years opposed abortion,” Flynn said, “and are now supporting it.”
Pete Sheehan is based in
Long Island, New York.