Romney Campaign’s Statement On Abortion Is A Move Toward The Center, And Away From Ryan’s Past

The Romney campaign responded to Todd Akin’s claims about pregnancy and rape by contradicting Paul Ryan’s previous hard-line position. Romney may be recognizing that while Ryan’s anti-abortion record pleases some conservative groups, it may not win the election.

Evan Vucci / AP

Romney on August 16.

Missouri Senate Candidate Todd Akin angered liberals and fellow conservatives alike yesterday by claiming that rape rarely leads to pregnancy because, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

And Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign reacted swiftly, issuing this response: “Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.” This is a big change for Ryan, who previously opposed abortion even in the case of rape, and it’s a big moment for the campaign.

In picking Ryan for VP, Romney’s allies and critics focused on Ryan’s budget plan, a dramatic assault on a range of government programs. But Romney also got a running mate who was willing to be much farther right on abortion than Romney himself ever was in his own complex journey on the subject. Romney once supported abortion rights, and while he now opposes abortion and has said he’ll defund Planned Parenthood if elected, he also believes in exceptions for rape or incest.

Ryan, meanwhile, cosponsored last year’s No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act, which initially would have outlawed public funding for abortions except in the case of “forcible rape,” (the word “forcible” was later removed) meaning cases involving statutory rape or a victim under the influence of drugs or alcohol wouldn’t be covered. He has said he supports abortion only to save the life of the mother. His voting record has earned him a 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee. And in 2010, he responded to a call for a “truce” on social issues by telling a reporter,

I’m as pro-life as a person gets. You’re not going to have a truce. Judges are going to come up. Issues come up, they’re unavoidable, and I’m never going to not vote pro-life.

Allowing abortion in the case of rape likely won’t look like a “truce” to many abortion rights supporters, but the campaign’s recent statement is something of a move toward the center. Americans who support abortion in some cases have long outnumbered those who support it in all or none, and even anti-abortion media have acknowledged rape as an instance in which many want women to retain their abortion rights. By affirming that it supports a woman’s right to an abortion under this circumstance, the Romney campaign has chosen to move closer to that position.

In so doing, it’s giving up some of the credibility with a socially conservative base that a Ryan pick seemed to guarantee. Rick Santorum blasted Romney earlier this year for his previous support of abortion rights, and just last month, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins advised him to choose a running mate who “isn’t just somebody who has checked the box [on opposing abortion rights] but somebody who has a portfolio of support on the culture of life.” Ryan is that running mate, and he looked like someone who would shore up Romney’s somewhat uncertain record on abortion issues.

But Romney may now be calculating that an ultra-hard line on abortion isn’t going to win him an election, with an eye to Obama campaign attacks that have already begun. The Ryan pick may have energized his base, but now he needs to get everyone else on board — including women voters in swing states, who may have been especially convinced by recent anti-Romney ads. Those voters aren’t going to flock to a candidate who makes a rape victim’s right to an abortion a major election issue.

Update: Ryan has in fact voted for bills containing an exception for rape in the past, as when he voted for the Stupak Amendment to the healthcare bill in 2009.

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