A defining moment in Mitt Romney's post-pro-life-conversion political career came in his third year as governor of Massachusetts, when he decided Catholic hospitals would be required under his interpretation of a new state law to give rape victims a drug that can induce abortions.
Romney announced this decision -- saying it was the "right thing for hospitals" to do -- just two days after he had taken the opposite position.
The story begins in 1975, when Massachusetts enacted a law that said, "No privately controlled hospital .. shall be required to permit any patient to have an abortion ... or to furnish contraceptive devices or information to such patient ... when said services or referrals are contrary to the religious or moral principles of said hospital ... ."
Twenty-seven years later, when Romney was running for governor, he filled out a questionnaire for NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. It said: "Emergency contraception does not cause abortion. Rather, it prevents pregnancy from occurring. Will you support efforts to increase access to emergency contraception?"
Romney said: "Yes."
The next year, the Massachusetts legislature considered an "emergency contraception" mandate. It would have allowed pharmacists to sell Plan B -- an abortifacient -- without a prescription and without parental consent. It also would have required all hospitals to inform rape victims of the availability of such "emergency contraceptives" and provide them to the rape victim if she wanted them even when they would cause an abortion.
Maria Parker of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy organization of the state's Catholic bishops, explained in testimony to the state legislature why Catholic hospitals could not do this.
The normal Catholic ban on artificial contraception did not apply in a rape case, Parker said. But while contraception was acceptable in such a situation, killing an unborn child was not.
In keeping with this moral understanding, one Massachusetts Catholic hospital chain would later explain to the Boston Globe that its practice was to test a rape victim to make certain she was not pregnant and only then give her emergency contraceptives. If the test proved the woman was pregnant, the hospital would not give the woman the drugs because they could not prevent conception but they could kill her child.
Parker concluded her testimony by quoting what Cardinal Frances George of Chicago had told the Illinois legislature when it proposed a similar law: "Our hospitals cannot and will not comply with this law."
In that session, the Massachusetts Senate passed the "emergency contraception" bill, but it was blocked in the House.
As Planned Parenthood and NARAL demanded action on the bill, and the Massachusetts Catholic Conference continued to speak out against it, Gov. Mitt Romney remained mum.
"Shawn Feddeman, spokeswoman for Gov. Mitt Romney, declined to comment on the governor's position on the bill," the Boston Globe reported on July 1, 2004. "'We'll review it when it reaches the governor's desk.'"The bill was reintroduced in the next session -- and Romney remained mum.
Romney had "no opinion on the bill," his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstorm, told The Associated Press in April 2005. "We'll take a look at the bill should it reach the governor's desk."
But the bill had veto-proof support in both chambers of the Democrat-controlled legislature in 2005. In July, the House and Senate reached a compromise on it that would protect Catholic hospitals from being forced to act against their faith.
At that time, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference published a bulletin explaining what happened. The House had included language to "expressly apply" the 1975 conscience law protections to the new emergency contraception law. The Senate had included language saying the new law should apply "notwithstanding" any existing law.
"In the end, neither amendment was included in the bill," said the Massachusetts Catholic Conference. "House Majority Leader John Rogers, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to defend the hospitals' right of conscience, made it clear during floor debate on July 21 that the House blocked the Senate amendment so that the 1975 conscience statute would continue to have full effect."
The conference provided me with a copy of this bulletin, and Rogers assured me its account was "accurate and true."
The Catholic Church still opposed the bill because it would facilitate abortions. But at least the religious liberty of Catholic hospitals had been preserved -- or so it seemed.
On July 25, 2005, Romney vetoed the bill -- even though it was clear his veto would be overridden.
He published an op-ed in the Boston Globe the next day explaining his decision. "The bill does not involve only the prevention of conception," he wrote. "The drug it authorizes would also terminate life after conception." Romney said the veto kept his pledge not to change the state's abortion laws.
Romney made no mention of the religious liberty issue in his op-ed. But then, the bill, as the Massachusetts Catholic Conference and the House majority leader understood it, did not allow coercion of Catholic hospitals.
Public Health Commissioner Paul Cote Jr. told the Globe: "We felt very clearly that the two laws don't cancel each other out and basically work in harmony with each other."
Romney spokesman Fehrnstrom told the Globe that Romney agreed with the Department of Public Health on the issue. The governor, he said, "respects the views of health care facilities that are guided by moral principles on this issue."
"The staff of DPH did their own objective and unbiased legal analysis," Romney's spokesman told the Globe. "The brought it to us, and we concur in it."
The Globe itself ruefully bowed to this legal analysis. It ran an editorial headlined: "A Plan B Mistake." "The legislators failed, however," the Globe said, "to include wording in the bill explicitly repealing a clause in an older statute that gives hospitals the right, for reasons of conscience, not to offer birth control services."
Liberals joined in attacking Romney's defense of Catholic hospitals. But that defense did not last long.
The same day the Globe ran its editorial, Romney held a press conference. Now he said his legal counsel had advised him the new emergency contraception law did trump the 1975 conscience law.
"On that basis, I have instructed the Department of Public Health to follow the conclusion of my own legal counsel and to adopt that sounder view," Romney said. "In my personal view, it's the right thing for hospitals to provide information and access to emergency contraception to anyone who is a victim of rape."
A true leader would have said: I will defend the First Amendment right of Catholics to freely exercise their religion -- against those who would force them to participate in abortions -- all the way to the Supreme Court.