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On abortion, many have flip-flopped

Romney is just the latest candidate to switch positions. It can work, depending on how voters gauge sincerity.

March 11, 2007|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — He is indisputably the most liberal Democrat running for president in 2008. He wants the U.S. out of Iraq -- and fast. He supports national health insurance. He's against the death penalty.

And Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich is for abortion rights. At least, now he is. As recently as five years ago, the Ohio Democrat was so far from liberal orthodoxy on abortion policy that he earned a 90% rating from the nation's leading anti-abortion advocacy group.

That journey underscores a rarely acknowledged fact about abortion, one of the most emotionally charged issues in American politics: Previous candidates for the nation's highest offices have switched sides on this issue too. Among them have been such heavyweights as Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Dick Gephardt.

This year, Republicans are trying to come to grips with the 180-degree turn on abortion executed by Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has become a top-tier presidential contender and the favorite of many GOP conservatives.

Romney until just a few years ago firmly supported abortion rights; he reversed field in 2004 and now calls himself "pro-life." That has spurred a pressing debate among conservative Republicans over whether they can trust him to be a true champion of the anti-abortion position.

As the history of abortion maneuvers shows, voters have come to accept some changes of heart as sincere and durable. Reagan, for example, eventually became a hero of anti-abortion activists even though, as California governor, he signed a law vastly expanding legal abortion.

But at other times, voters have viewed abortion converts -- whether they shifted to favor or oppose abortion rights -- as lacking commitment on a fundamental issue.

Gephardt abandoned a measure significantly restricting abortion, and that move endeared him to Democratic Party activists just before he ran for the 1988 presidential nomination. But the switch contributed to an unflattering view of him as a political opportunist without firm principles, which weakened him as a candidate.

A similar image dogged Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, as he had also switched from a conservative to a liberal position on abortion and other issues.

That is a cautionary tale for Romney. His abortion conversion faces especially deep skepticism because it is one of many issues -- including gay rights and gun control -- where he seems to have been inconsistent.

"It's part of such a glaring pattern of flip-flops on issues across the board," said Gary Glenn, president of the conservative American Family Assn. of Michigan, in Romney's home state.

"You need a scorecard to keep up with Mitt Romney's daily machinations on where he is today versus where he was yesterday."

Among Republicans, Romney is not alone in drawing suspicion from abortion foes. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is reviled by many activists for supporting abortion rights. And some conservatives worry that abortion is a low priority for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), even though he recently reaffirmed his support for overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Still, no candidate has spent more time and energy addressing the issue than Romney. While he was a Senate candidate running against Democrat Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts, Romney portrayed himself as a committed supporter of abortion rights, as he did again when he ran successfully for governor in 2002.

But Romney says he was turned around in 2004 by the debate over embryonic stem cell research. A discussion with scientists about destroying human embryos for research, he says, led him to the broader conclusion that legalized abortion "cheapened the value and sanctity of human life."

Trying to persuade skeptics that his change of heart is sincere, Romney likes to point to Reagan and other political leaders who underwent long-lasting abortion conversions.

As California governor, Reagan in 1967 signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, legalizing the procedure in cases where a woman's mental or physical health was at risk. Reagan "agonized" over the legislation, recalled former aide Edwin Meese, and took a week out of his schedule to talk to doctors, clergymen and psychiatrists about the issue.

"On one hand, he felt that if a woman's health was threatened, there would be reason to have an abortion. But at the same time, he did not want to open the door to abortion in general," Meese said.

Reagan came to regret signing the bill, Meese said, primarily because the number of abortions skyrocketed in California under the rubric of protecting the "mental health" of women. Within a year, Reagan said the law was a mistake.

Years later, when conservatives were casting around for an alternative to Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 GOP nomination, Reagan made increasingly strong statements of opposition to abortion.

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