A new book out about Mitt Romney, Mitt Romney: An Inside Look at the Man and His Politics (Lyons 2011), makes a startling revelation: in the 1990s, candidate Mitt Romney relied upon polling by the late Richard Wirthlin, a Mormon pollster and chief strategist to the Reagan campaign, that made clear that no pro-life candidate could win elective office in Massachusetts. The book suggests that Romney tailored his position of government neutrality on abortion around that polling.
Romney famously went on to be skewered by Ted Kennedy as “multiple choice” on the question of abortion in the 1994 race for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, losing by seventeen points after polling even with him into the debates. Still despite Kennedy’s characterization, Romney was endorsed by Massachusetts pro-life organizations.
Before announcing his candidacy, Romney also solicited advice from the Mormon church’s powerful Quorum of Twelve and the First Presidency before running against Ted Kennedy in 1994. In those meetings, Romney stressed his interpretation of the church’s doctrine of “free agency.” In essence, if free men and women can choose between good and evil, then it it is up to God, not men, to judge them for their actions.
That includes the choice of abortion, which Mormon theology permits in the cases of rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother. Though technically correct, several of the Mormons profiled in the book argued that the theological position Romney presented was a little too convenient for Romney’s election.
Written by fellow Mormon, Bostonian and Time reporter, Ronald. B. Scott, the book reveals that Romney’s decision to rely on polling on what is for many Americans and many Mormons a pivotal issue may raise a character issue for a candidate who portrays himself as pro-life.
As a young stake president (equivalent to a bishop in the Catholic church) Romney counseled against abortion for women under his care. He often clashed with Judy Dushku, a Mormon feminist figure and the mother of actress Eliza Dushku. Dushku has repeatedly argued that Romney was more conservative on abortion in private than he was publicly. Local Mormon leaders redrew the map of the local wards to guarantee that Romney and Dushku would never meet in what was known as the “Duskhu gerrymander, an unrequested courtesy extended to their former stake president Mitt Romney and his wife, who would never again have to be face to face with Judy Dushku while they worshipped,” Scott wrote.
In 2007, Judy Dushku recalled a published anonymous article in her feminist Mormon magazine, Exponents II, by a Mormon woman who wanted to have an abortion in 1990 when Mitt Romney was a stake president. (The article did not mention Mitt Romney by name, but Dushku later identified him.) The woman, Carrel Hilton Sheldon, has since come forward. Sheldon claims that Romney worked very hard to prevent her from having an abortion, even though her doctor (also a Mormon and past stake president) said her pregnancy might take her life. The woman ultimately had the abortion.
In 1983, according to another new book about Romney, The Real Romney, he also allegedly pressured Peggy Hayes, a single mother seeking an abortion, to give up her baby for adoption or risk excommunication. Prior to relaying the church’s position, Romney had worked with other members in the church to help Hayes pay her bills and find work. Hayes ultimately kept the baby and was not excommunicated, even though having a baby out of wedlock is also apparent grounds for exclusion from the church, at the discretion of church leaders.
Romney has since backed off of his ’94 views. On July 26, 2005, Mitt Romney announced he was pro-life in the pages of The Boston Globe, except in the cases of rape and incest, as is more common with Mormon teachings. Critics dismissed the conversion as politically motivated, and as having been just in time for his bid for the presidency, but Romney maintained that his change of heart had been sincere.