Romney’s wavering path on abortion. Do voters care?

Abortion is a tricky issue for both Romney and Obama campaigns. In polls, a plurality agrees that abortion should be generally available. But a substantial number want to restrict its availability.

Kelley Cox/Glenwood Springs Post Independent/AP
In this March, 2012 photo, supporters from both sides of the abortion issue share the sidewalk next to the Planned Parenthhood clinic in West Glenwood, Colo.

Mitt Romney is having to talk about abortion a lot more than he’d like to these days for one key reason: His history on this important social issue is, shall we say, very mixed.

Also, it’s a wedge issue that’s increasingly important to the Obama campaign, which some polls show is seeing a drop in what had been its clear lead among women voters. As a result, both sides have hustled out new ads on the subject.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll of swing states this week shows why it could be an important issue in the election.

When women were asked to identify the most important issue for them, the top concern by far was abortion, an issue that didn't even register among men, USA Today reported. Nearly four in 10 women cited it, and those who did supported Obama by more than 3-1.

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Back in 1994 when he was challenging Ted Kennedy for a seat in the US Senate, Romney declared that “abortion should be safe and legal in this country.”

“I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support it, and I sustain and support that law,” he said then.

Two important things he noted at the time: His position was the same his mother took when she ran unsuccessfully for a US Senate seat in Michigan in 1970. And he wouldn’t let his personal opposition to abortion (tied to his Mormon faith) get in the way of “the right of a woman to make that choice.”

Mr. Romney lost that race, but his position on abortion (in liberal Massachusetts) didn’t change when he ran successfully for governor six years later. “As Governor, Mitt Romney would protect the current pro-choice status quo in Massachusetts,” his platform stated. “No law would change." Note that he wasn’t just acknowledging the Bay State’s pro-choice preference on abortion but vowing to “protect” it.

Three years later, his rhetoric on abortion had changed significantly.

"I am pro-life,” he wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed in 2005.

“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,” he 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.”

Today, that last phrase – “dictated by judicial mandate” – is what has abortion rights advocates worried.

Romney was saying that the legality of abortion should be left to the states, implying that Roe v. Wade had been judicial overreach. More recently, Romney’s campaign website calls the 1973 landmark US Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion “a case of blatant judicial activism,” and he promises to “nominate judges who know the difference between personal opinion and the law” – presumably including US Supreme Court justices more in line with his thinking.

Four of the nine Supreme Court justices are in their 70s. They could serve for many more years. But should any of them retire, the next president would nominate their successor. If that’s Mitt Romney, the likelihood of a new direction on federal abortion law is greater. And as Slate’s David Weigel points out, “Overturn Roe, and in a vast swath of the country abortion is illegal, immediately.”

During the Republican primary campaign, Romney told Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee that he “absolutely” supports a Constitutional amendment banning abortion.

As the presidential campaign accelerates toward Election Day Nov. 6, both sides are pushing new TV ads on abortion.

An Obama ad – featuring a snippet from a 2007 Republican primary debate for the 2008 election – warns that Romney wants to ban “all abortions.” A Romney ad has a woman – a former Obama supporter – pointing out that Romney “in fact thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother’s life” – the point Romney himself emphasizes in campaign appearances.

Abortion is a tricky issue for both campaigns.

A CBS/New York Times poll last month had a plurality of those surveyed (42 percent) agreeing that abortion should be “generally available.” But a substantial 35 percent said it should be “available under stricter limits” – presumably something closer to Romney’s current position – and 20 percent said abortion “should not be permitted.”

While anti-abortion groups and Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan (at least before he joined the ticket) oppose the procedure under any circumstances, Romney’s allowing for some important exceptions appears not to be a political problem for social conservatives.

“We wouldn’t have endorsed him if I didn’t truly believe he’s truly pro-life and has that conviction,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, told Talking Points Memo.

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