One of the things that many Romney supporters are using to explain away their decision to ignore Romney’s many flip flops is Ronald Reagan’s one-time support for abortion and his signing of the Therapeutic Abortion Act as governor of California in 1967. But this comparison is a non sequitur. Reagan’s support of that abortion bill and his subsequent turn against it is less like a flip flop than Romney’s about face on the issue. In fact, a review of the two men’s record on abortion makes Romney look worse for the effort, not at all “just like Reagan.”
The first thing to realize about Reagan’s 1967 signing of the California abortion bill was that the whole national debate on abortion was, if you will, in its infancy. It was then not much of a national issue. The arguments for and against abortion had not crystallized into the well-worn positions we now know so well. After all, Roe v Wade wasn’t to catapult the issue to national prominence until 1973.
When this bill came before him in 1967, Reagan was admittedly unsure of what to do with the thing. He dithered for a long time before finally signing the bill because he simply had never given much thought to the issue. He quickly regretted placing his signature on the bill and firmly decided that hence forth he would be pro-life. He never supported an outright pro-abortion measure again.
Ronald Reagan had only been six months into his governorship when he finally signed the bill and his inexperience in the Governor’s office was something else that he said caused him to act without enough due deliberation. He was also shocked at the unintended consequences of the bill. The provision of “health of the mother” was so liberally interpreted by California doctors that the rate of abortions soared. Reagan Biographer Lou Cannon once noted that even the Democrat sponsor of the bill was surprised at how liberally doctors employed the provision to justify abortions.
This experience finally caused Reagan to choose life and eschew abortion. His final decision on pro-life issues was succinct. “If there is a question as to whether there is life or death, the doubt should be resolved in favor of life,” he said.
So, what can we learn of Reagan’s stance on abortion? While it is true that he once supported a major abortion bill, it was without zeal and was not with a fully thought-out philosophical position on the matter. As it happened, once he took full measure of the issue he stood for life and never much wavered afterwards.
One thing we cannot say about Ronald Reagan is that he campaigned in favor of abortion. The truth is he never claimed full-throated support of abortion and, despite signing the Therapeutic Abortion Act, once he made up his mind about the issue he didn’t fade back and forth. So, it is a bit precious for Romney supporters to act as if Reagan flip flopped on an issue that he had barely even considered before 1967. Few people in the whole country even had abortion issues on their radar back then.
On the other hand, Romney’s record on abortion and his miraculous “growth” on the issue smacks of politics instead of ideology. Some reports even claim that Romney purposefully chose the pro-abortion stance in order to win in Massachusetts.
You see, unlike Reagan, Mitt Romney had for years campaigned forcefully in support of abortion. Both during his 1994 Senate campaign against Teddy Kennedy and as Governor of the State of Massachusetts Romney stood up for abortion.
Far from non-committal, Romney’s position on abortion was strong. In 1994, for instance, a spokesman for the then Senate candidate announced that Mitt’s stance in favor of abortion had grown “firmer” as he studied the issue. Again this is unlike Reagan.
During a senate debate in 1994, Romney said, “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. … I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years we should sustain and support it.”
By 2002 when he was running for Governor of the Bay State, Mitt was still a pro-abortion guy. Romney then said, “I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose, and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard. I will not change any provisions of Massachusetts’ pro-choice laws.”
In a gubernatorial debate Mitt said, “I do not take the position of a pro-life candidate.”
Yet only a few years later as he geared up for his first run at the White House, Mitt was suddenly pro-life. He had an epiphany, he claimed. It was the issue of human cloning that caused the shift, he said. “It hit me very hard that we had so cheapened the value of human life in a Roe v. Wade environment that it was important to stand for the dignity of human life.”
Newly christened a pro-life candidate Mitt then sallied forth to vie for the GOP nomination for President — an endeavor in which few pro-abortion candidates are welcome. One can easily assume this epiphany to be a political calculation as opposed to an honest changing of his mind.
Of course it is perfectly logical to assume that someone can legitimately change positions on something after serious reflection. There is nothing inherently hypocritical about changing one’s mind. And we cannot say what is in Mitt Romney’s heart to be sure. But we don’t need to read his heart to understand that his shift on abortion is nothing like Reagan’s.
First and most importantly, Mitt Romney’s entire political life was led in an era when the issue of abortion was a main political battle. Unlike Reagan, Mitt Romney did not come to age politically in a day when abortion was little known. Positions had hardened long before Mitt Romney was in any political position to affect policy on the matter.
Secondly, Mitt campaigned for decades fully in favor of abortion. This is also unlike Reagan who tepidly supported abortion but once and then only before he had given much thought to the issue.
The facts are indisputable. There was no major flip flop on abortion for Ronald Reagan. His record shows a man that, once he fully decided where he stood on the issue, never again wavered. Romney’s record, though, shows a flip flop easily portrayed as a cynical political ploy to get elected, one that came after decades of strongly campaigning for the opposite.
In the final analysis, all we can say is that, at least on the abortion issue, Mitt Romney is nothing like Ronald Reagan.