CHICAGO -- You have to feel for Mitt Romney. The Massachusetts governor, who labored for years to convince voters in his state that he would not infringe on abortion rights, is now striving mightily to persuade voters elsewhere that he would do exactly that.
He becomes the latest of many politicians who, in the course of their quest for the White House, have felt an irresistible impulse to re-evaluate this issue. And if that makes you skeptical about the sincerity of presidential candidates, well, shame on you.
When Mr. Romney, a Republican, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, he said, "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal" and professed his support for the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. In his winning 2002 campaign for governor, he endorsed public funding of abortions for poor women and promised not to change Massachusetts law.
But so much can happen in four years. He recently said in an interview with the conservative National Review Online that "several years ago," while contemplating embryonic stem-cell research, he was struck by the notion that Roe v. Wade had devalued respect for life.
So he vetoed a bill that would have allowed "therapeutic cloning" of embryos for research. He also told NRO he would like the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, which he has come to understand as "another example of judges making the law instead of interpreting the Constitution."
"I'm in a different place than I was probably in 1994, when I ran against Ted Kennedy, in my own views on that," he said last year in an interview with USA Today. No kidding. In 1994, he wasn't trying to make friends with conservative GOP primary voters New Hampshire and South Carolina. Today he is.
Mr. Romney at least acknowledges his shift, while portraying it as an act of conscience. And, says Marie Sturgis, executive director of the anti-abortion Massachusetts Citizens for Life, "He is changing. It's not just rhetoric." Last year, he even vetoed a bill to expand access to the morning-after pill, despite mounting evidence that it is not, in fact, an abortifacient.
This change makes perfect sense if you assume he had a late-developing moral epiphany on the sanctity of fetal life. About the same time, it would seem, the scales fell from his eyes on the separate matter of judicial activism, forcing him to disavow a Supreme Court decision that he once embraced.
More likely, though, he realized that if he hopes to win the GOP nomination for president, he had better start sounding more conservative - no matter how many of his words he has to eat. This hypothesis gains strength when you consider that Mr. Romney, who once endorsed a federal measure to outlaw discrimination against gays, now opposes the idea.
It's a little unfair to single out Mr. Romney, who is not the first presidential candidate to outgrow a youthful set of abortion beliefs. Ronald Reagan signed a liberal abortion law in California before reversing himself. George H.W. Bush, once a supporter of abortion rights, took the opposite position as Mr. Reagan's running mate in 1980. The current president had a liberal position when he ran for Congress in 1978.
But Democrats have proved equally open-minded. Jesse Jackson, who once denounced legal abortion as "a policy of killing infants," morphed when he ran for president in 1984. Al Gore, who once voted for a measure stipulating that life begins at conception, made an about-face before becoming Bill Clinton's running mate in 1992. As governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton said, "I am opposed to abortion and to government funding of abortion." As president, not so much.
You will notice the common element: Each of these shifts, however morally sincere, perfectly fit the political needs of the candidate in question at that point in his career.
Does that make you feel you can't trust politicians on this subject? It shouldn't. The record shows clearly that you can trust almost any politician to champion the abortion policy that serves his or her immediate interests, and to sincerely place his political prospects above anything else.
So, as a pro-lifer, I know Mitt Romney is now firmly on my side of this critical issue. And I have complete confidence that he will be there until he isn't.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.