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Clarity sought on Romney's abortion stance

Groups perceive muddled message

Advocates on both sides of the abortion debate say they are confused over Governor Mitt Romney's position on abortion and are seeking to understand the meaning of recent comments he has made, in light of the positions he outlined during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

Last week, the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts provided the Globe a copy of a letter sent earlier this month in which they asked Romney to explain his current abortion philosophy and to confirm that he supports emergency contraception and other measures he embraced while running for governor.

Similarly, a leading antiabortion group is puzzled: ''We honestly don't know where he stands on this issue," said Marie Sturgis, executive director and legislative director for Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

When he ran for US Senate in liberal-leaning Massachusetts in 1994, Romney said abortion should be ''safe and legal." As a candidate for governor in 2002, he said he would keep the state's abortion rights laws intact and has since said that he kept that promise. But this year, as he began preparing a potential run for president, Romney said he is ''in a different place" than he was when he first ran for office in 1994 and has stressed that he is ''personally prolife."

Romney was asked repeatedly by the Globe last week to elaborate on his abortion stance, and he refused. ''I think I've said it a few hundred times through my campaign the same thing I'll say today, which is that I personally do not favor abortion. But as governor of Massachusetts, I will keep the laws as they exist," Romney said Wednesday.

That answer is unfulfilling to advocates on both sides of the polarizing issue at a time when the next president could shape the makeup of the US Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced Friday that she was stepping down, and more openings are expected in the coming years.

Four weeks ago, the Globe reported that Joseph M. Scheidler, the national director of the Pro-Life Action League, detected that Romney was ''coming around" to a firmer opposition to abortion. Soon after Scheidler's comments were published, however, the Chicago-based advocate heard from Massachusetts abortion opponents who were far more skeptical about their governor.

''I started getting a lot of calls saying, 'This guy is no good, he's just playing politics, he's trying to get both sides,' " Scheidler said in a telephone interview.

Sturgis, of the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said Romney does not have regular contacts with her group. ''If we could, we would," Sturgis said. When he ran for governor in 2002, she said, her group considered him an abortion rights supporter; Romney declined to complete the Citizens for Life questionnaire.

''He appears to be evolving," Sturgis said. ''Where that goes, or to what degree he winds up with us, I can't say. But certainly, more than one politician has changed his mind on this issue."

By contrast, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which also opposes abortion, does not believe the governor's recent statements signify a change in his position.

''No matter how you position the governor, it looks to me like he's the more moderate choice, given what the Democrats may offer," said Daniel Avila, associate director for policy and research for the Massachusetts Catholic Conference. And, Avila believes, Romney will make his position clear when the time comes. ''My experience is that when a particular issue solidifies, it hasn't taken too long for him to come forward with a concrete response," he said.

During the 2002 campaign for governor, most major abortion rights groups endorsed his Democratic opponent, Shannon O'Brien, because they said she would be a champion of their cause, even though Romney offered support for abortion rights. He picked up the backing of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition.

''I respect and will protect a woman's right to choose. This choice is a deeply personal one," Romney wrote in answer to a NARAL questionnaire during the campaign. ''Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not mine and not the government's. The truth is, no candidate in the governor's race in either party would deny women abortion rights. So let's end this argument that does not exist and stop the cynical, divisive attacks made only for political gain."

Now, abortion rights activists contend he is backing away, citing his changing language on abortion rights and his positions on what they see as a related set of issues on family planning. This spring, Romney tried to direct federal abstinence-only federal funding toward classroom instruction, which abortion rights groups oppose. He trimmed $1 million for teen pregnancy prevention in budget vetoes Thursday, although he let some money remain.

Looking ahead, he has refused to commit to a pending bill providing emergency contraception, though he supported such pregnancy prevention during his campaign. He also tried unsuccessfully to insert language into the stem cell research bill stating that life begins at the moment of conception. Abortion opponents were heartened by that effort, but remain unsure.

Romney's declaration of support for abortion rights dates to his first campaign for political office, challenging US Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994. During a televised debate, Romney said he and his family were influenced by an experience that led both him and his mother, who ran for the US Senate in Michigan in 1970, to embrace abortion rights.

''Many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion," Romney said in a debate with Kennedy. ''It is since that time my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that."

Last week, Romney's sister, Jane, recalled that the girl Romney cited in the debate was a teenager engaged to marry a relative of the Romneys' extended family. In a separate interview, Ronna Romney Kulp, the former wife of Romney's brother, Scott, remembered that the family was shaken by the girl's death.

''I do know it deeply impacted members of the family," Kulp said.

Jane Romney recalled that although the girl was not a close relative, her death shifted her family's perspective on a difficult political issue.

''With my mom, that was a personal thing because we had a tragedy close to us -- not in our immediate family, but a young girl who actually was engaged and had an illegal abortion and died," Jane Romney said in a telephone interview. ''She was a beautiful, talented young gal we all loved. And it pretty much ruined the parents -- their only daughter. You would do anything not to repeat that."

Romney has declined to discuss the episode involving the girl, and his aides were extremely sensitive to further examination of his record last week. Over his career, Romney has at times resisted characterization on abortion and he once objected to the Utah news media's characterization of him as a ''prochoice" politician.

''I do not wish to be labeled prochoice," Romney wrote in a July 2001 Salt Lake Tribune letter to the editor. ''I have never felt comfortable with the labels associated with the abortion issue."

If Romney would make his opposition clear, the 6,000-member Pro-Life Action League would be pleased to have him, Scheidler said.

''This would be the time," Scheidler said. ''I can't fault him for that, if [the timing] looks a little suspicious. He's read the writing on the wall. The values voters are strong. And they're growing."

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com

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