ANALYSIS: As Mitt Romney moves to the middle, anti-abortion activists try to cover his right flank

As Mitt Romney has moved to the center in an effort to overtake President Barack Obama in the campaign’s homestretch, … Continued

As Mitt Romney has moved to the center in an effort to overtake President Barack Obama in the campaign’s homestretch, he has by necessity muted — or even muddied — his previous opposition to abortion rights, a shift that has left some abortion foes aghast.

But veteran anti-abortion leaders say they are confident that Romney remains committed to their agenda and, in the final weeks before the Nov. 6 vote, they are busy trying to keep rank-and-file activists from pouncing on the Republican candidate’s ambiguous statements. Their fear? That going after Romney could prompt defections and cost the GOP a surprisingly strong shot at winning the White House.

“If it’s hurting him to bring up the abortion issue, then I’m OK if he doesn’t,” said Bradley Mattis, head of the Life Issues Institute in Cincinnati.

“I think our movement has to be savvy enough to understand how political campaigns are run,” he said. “And if they don’t, now would be a good time to have that revelation.”

Several other anti-abortion leaders echoed Mattis, saying that abortion opponents around the country have been coordinating their strategy to reflect a political realism that is not often associated with the prophetic tenor of anti-abortion activists. Romney, they say, is the best they will get, and he’s not really so bad, especially given the alternative.

“We don’t necessarily need in public office someone who is going to be a crusader on this issue. We just need someone who’s going to make it easier for us to do our job,” said the Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life.

“We understand why a candidate wouldn’t make this their leading issue,” Pavone said, adding that he was comfortable with Romney’s positions. “I’ve found that the more I really try to sincerely understand how politics and government work, the more I’m OK with what might be seen as reason for criticism or concern. It’s just the nature of the way it works.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the Susan B. Anthony List, said she gets “outrageous” emails every day saying “it is your obligation to expose Romney’s weaknesses.”

But she rejects those demands as “off-the-charts unwise,” telling her followers that they need a healthy dose of political pragmatism. Romney isn’t perfect, she said, but Obama is far worse, and abortion opponents “have the power to make Romney follow through on his commitments” — if he is elected.

“Politics isn’t a science; it is not the art of the perfect,” she said. “It’s a tool.”

If anti-abortion groups can in fact preach that message of political realism, it could prove crucial for Romney, who has long struggled to present a clear position on abortion and reproductive rights.

As governor of Massachusetts a decade ago, Romney strongly supported abortion rights and said he was “effectively pro-choice.” The health care plan he shepherded into law, which was a model for Obama’s 2010 national reform, even included taxpayer funding for abortions.

In 2005, as Romney began his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, he announced that he had changed his views and was now “pro-life.”

But many abortion opponents were never fully convinced of Romney’s conversion, and they blasted Romney throughout the GOP primaries as being insincere. He responded by pledging to work to overturn Roe v. Wade, defund Planned Parenthood, and to take other steps demanded by anti-abortion groups.

Since winning the nomination and moving to the general election, however, those statements appeared to hurt him with key voting blocs — women, in particular, but also independents and young adults.

So several weeks ago, facing an uphill slog in the polls, Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, a Catholic, began to de-emphasize issues like abortion and gay rights in order to win over some of those voters. When they did discuss abortion, it was in terms that seemed to soften or even contradict Romney’s earlier positions.

In late August, for example, Romney dismayed some hard-line abortion foes by sharply denouncing Missouri GOP senate candidate Todd Akin for his controversial remarks about rape and abortion. Romney followed that by distancing himself from the Republican platform that bars abortion in all cases, adding that he viewed the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe decision legalizing abortion as “settled.”

Then on Oct. 9, Romney told The Des Moines Register that he would not push any abortion-related legislation if elected — which seemed to contradict a column he wrote in National Review last year detailing the anti-abortion legislation he would support.

And this week, the Romney campaign released a new ad aimed at women voters that stresses Romney’s support for contraception and provisions that would allow women to have legal abortions.

Romney followed that up in Tuesday (Oct. 16) night’s debate with President Obama by declaring that “Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives.” He also said employers should not be able to bar women from receiving such insurance, an apparent reversal of his previous position on that hot-button topic.

While Romney’s campaign has often issued follow-up clarifications to reassure social conservatives of Romney’s underlying commitments, the initial impression of a more moderate Romney endured — and many abortion opponents who are passionate about their issue took offense.

“I’m running out of fingers and toes to count the number of positions he has taken on abortion,” Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa, told The Washington Post. “This is someone who does not have a deep or abiding position on this issue either way, and I think what it does is it puts pro-life leadership in America in a difficult position. I don’t know anybody in the pro-family movement who is not for sale who trusts him.”

On Wednesday, Anna Williams at the conservative journal First Things said she was nonplused by Romney’s comments on contraception. “I remain nervous, for there appears to be more than one Mitt Romney,” Williams wrote.

Others argue that Romney has simply misstated his views or been quoted out of context. “No alarm bells here,” Tony Perkins, president of the anti-abortion Family Research Council, told Talking Points Memo last week after Romney’s Iowa remarks.

Romney’s faith-based supporters also say that their political pragmatism should be informed by a sense of charity as well.

“It’s not just saying,’Suck it up and move on — vote for him,’” said Dannenfelser. “Mitt Romney is a human being, and it’s important to be an asset and a friend to him, to say the best possible things about him.”

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

  • Jason Steerforth

    So… they’re saying it’s OK for him to lie about his “real” position to get the presidency because they’re sure he isn’t lying to THEM, he’s lying to moderates? I think that means they’re lying to themselves. Once he gets in he’s not going to care about any of the nut-jobs splinter factions — he’s just going to lounge around and talk about how great he is and how lucky we are that he came along to save the US the way he saved the Olympics and Massachusetts. Feh!

  • kingcranky

    If Romney & Ryan have to downplay their anti-abortion views, then the voters aren’t anywhere near as “pro life” as the forced-birth crowd wants us to believe.

    And Marjorie Dannenfelser is fooling herself if she believes, “abortion opponents “have the power to make Romney follow through on his commitments” — if he is elected”, if they can’t keep Romney in line now, they certainly won’t have MORE power to do so after the elections.

Read More Articles

This God’s For You: Jesus and the Good News of Beer

How Jesus partied with a purpose.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

Dear Evangelicals, Please Reconsider Your Fight Against Gay Rights

A journalist and longtime observer of American religious culture offers some advice to his evangelical friends.

How Passover Makes the Impossible Possible

When we place ourselves within the story, we can imagine new realities.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

How to Debate Christians: Five Ways to Behave and Ten Questions to Answer

Advice for atheists taking on Christian critics.

Heaven Hits the Big Screen

How “Heaven is for Real” went from being an unsellable idea to a bestselling book and the inspiration for a Hollywood movie.

This Passover, We’re Standing at an Unparted Red Sea

We need to ask ourselves: What will be the future of the State of Israel — and what will it require of us?

Just As I Am

My childhood conversion to Christianity was only the first of many.

shutterstock_127731035 (1)
Are Single People the Lepers of Today’s Church?

In an age of rising singlehood, many churches are still focused on being family ministry centers.

Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing

That verse you keep quoting? It may not mean what you think it means.

What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us About the Gay Marriage Controversy

Why “welcome and wanted” is a biblical response to gay and lesbian couples in evangelical churches.