Rick Perry speaks at the Personhood USA forum in Greenville, S.C. (Paul Sancya / Associated…)
Reporting from Greenville, S.C. — GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney was the only candidate who did not take part in a “personhood” forum put on by antiabortion activists, but he was an undeniable presence at the gathering taking place just days before South Carolina holds the first primary in the South.
The former Massachusetts governor’s main rivals, who are seeking to consolidate the support of religious voters so they can pose a serious challenge to him, bashed his past positions on abortion. (Romney was once pro-choice, but declared in 2005 that he had changed his mind except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry mocked the switch, saying that he could understand such a reversal in a young adult who had matured and gained wisdom, but not in Romney’s case.
“In your 50s?” he said, speaking to several hundred socially conservative voters gathered in a hotel ballroom. “It is clear to most of us that this was a choice for convenience. This was a decision that Gov. Romney made for a political convenience, not an issue of his heart.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich noted that Romney’s healthcare reform in Massachusetts included taxpayer-funded abortions and he appointed pro-choice judges while governor.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also participated in the discussion, with Paul taking part by video because he returned to Washington on Wednesday to vote against raising the nation’s debt ceiling.
The forum took place as the race in the Palmetto State has tightened. Romney still leads, but Gingrich is surging, though it’s unclear whether he has enough time to mount a comeback before voters head to the polls on Saturday.
The four men who took part in the forum have all signed a pledge that they would work to advance federal and state laws that recognize that life begins at conception and that they would only appoint judges and other officials that agree with that statement. They largely agree on everything – opposition to abortion, taxpayer funding of abortion and Planned Parenthood, and what they characterize as an overly active judiciary.
But they were pushed by moderators about the past positions on abortion.
Santorum acknowledged that as a senator, he voted for appropriations bills that contained provisions funding Planned Parenthood, but said he did so because "we had no ability to defeat" them. He pledged that as president, he would veto any bill that funds organizations that provide abortions.
“We need to make sure that we have someone who is unabashedly not just pro-life, but unabashedly a fighter for life,” he said.
He also reaffirmed his opposition to embryonic stem cell research, “an area where we cannot and should not go.”
“We are what we allow our society to do,” he said. “And if we allow our society to prey upon innocent human life, we are complicit with it.”
Perry once supported allowing abortion in the case of rape or incest and explained that he changed his view after meeting a woman who was the child of a rape victim.
“She said, ‘Are you telling me that my life is not just as important?’ and I didn’t have an answer for her. And she touched my heart,” he said. “At that particular point in time, I realized, if you’re going to be pro-life, you’ve got to be pro-life. You can’t be partly pro-life.”
Perry pointed to his record in Texas, where during his 11-year tenure as governor laws were put in place requiring parental consent when minors seek abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood and mandating that women seeking abortions see a sonogram of the fetus.
"It's not just a lump of tissue," he said. "It's a living human being."
Gingrich was also questioned about his support of measures that allowed abortion in cases of rape and incest, and replied that though he believes life begins at conception, he defended his support of the Hyde amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortions except in cases of rape or incest.
Gingrich said he believed in a Catholic doctrine that says, “If you can save a majority, then you do it, even though it’s not perfect.”
Paul is antiabortion but his commitment to the issue is questioned by some activists because of his belief that states ought to enforce laws about such matters as they do with violent crimes. He did not back down from that stance.
Paul said he supported passing legislation that would take the issue out of the hands of the federal courts, which would overturn Roe vs. Wade but not end abortion in all 50 states.
“It is not monolithic,” he said. “You do what you can in the meantime, but at the same time don’t give up on the other efforts.”
Paul said it was important to try to change people’s minds about abortion, noting that as an obstetrician he was able to do that when he showed ultrasounds to pregnant women. “We cannot change the people’s morality by writing more laws,” he said.