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Romneycare and Abortion

Iowa’s social conservatives weigh the candidates.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Mitt Romney erased any doubt that he’s playing to win the Iowa caucuses when he rolled out his first campaign ads in the Hawkeye State last week. A glossy paper mailer pitched Romney to socially conservative Iowans as “the strongest Republican to beat Barack Obama and protect our values.” Romney’s “pro-life,” “pro-marriage,” and “pro-family” credentials were the three bullet points. “Mitt Romney lives his values,” read the “pro-family” text, as reported by the Des Moines Register. “He has been married to Ann for 42 years .  .  . and he has been a member of the same church his entire life.” (Translation: Unlike a certain unnamed former speaker of the House who is leading Romney in Iowa and national polls.)

Photo of Nebraska abortion clinic


“I believe he has a real shot,” Bob Vander Plaats, a leading Iowa social conservative, says of Romney’s chances in the state, where evangelical Christians make up 60 percent of GOP caucusgoers. But Romney won’t be winning with the support of Vander Plaats, who served as Mike Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa state chairman and lost the 2010 gubernatorial primary by 9 points to Governor Terry Branstad. “Most of the conservative base has written off Romney,” Vander Plaats tells me. “The problem is that we don’t have a natural like Huckabee we can coalesce around.” Vander Plaats says board members of his organization, the Family Leader, have ruled out endorsing Romney, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain.

Romney doesn’t need to win Iowa’s social conservative activists, but he does need to allay the concerns of enough social conservatives to win the state—and the nomination. Vander Plaats says that one big stumbling block for Romney is the Massachusetts health care law’s coverage of elective abortions. “They can try to spin” Romneycare, he says. “The fact is that abortions are still allowed under that law, and the state is involved in funding those abortions. That’s just not all that long ago.” In fact, the law passed in 2006—after Romney’s pro-life conversion. 

Taxpayer funding of abortion is highly unpopular among the general electorate and outright toxic with Republicans. Voters opposed public funding of abortion by 72 percent to 23 percent in a 2009 Quinnipiac poll. Republicans opposed it by an eye-popping 91 percent to 5 percent. The issue nearly brought down Obama’s health care bill in an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. And Huckabee hit Romney on the issue of state-subsidized abortions in the closing days of the 2008 Iowa campaign. Mitt Romney “comes on and says he’s pro-life and yet he signed a bill that gives a $50 co-pay for an elective abortion in his state’s health care plan,” Huckabee said during a Meet the Press appearance four days before the caucuses. Romney lost Iowa to Huckabee by 9 points.

The Romney campaign says the attack that helped sink his Iowa campaign in 2008 is unfounded. “Longstanding court precedent requires Massachusetts to cover abortion services in government-subsidized plans,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul writes in an email to The Weekly Standard. “Decisions about what services to cover were ultimately determined by the independent Health Care Connector Authority pursuant to the law.”

It’s true that the Massachusetts supreme court ruled in 1981 that the state must fund abortions for people on government health plans such as Medicaid. Twelve other states—including conservative or battleground states such as Arizona, West Virginia, Minnesota, and Alaska—pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients because of state supreme court rulings. Only four states have enacted laws through the legislative process to allow taxpayer funding of abortion.

Still, some social conservatives don’t buy Romney’s defense that it’s all the fault of the judges. “You know what I would think if I were a pro-lifer? That’s a pretty darn good reason not to have the government take over the health care system,” says Steve Deace, a Christian conservative Iowa radio host and longtime Romney antagonist. “Forget the mandate, which is wrong to begin with. The first moral principle is don’t murder.”

Why would Romney expand access to government-subsidized health care if those plans would cover elective abortions? David French of Evangelicals for Mitt says that argument is a “classic example of not understanding what an actual governor of an actual blue state has to face.”

“Mitt Romney did not have the option of saying .  .  . that there won’t be government involvement in Massachusetts health care,” says French. “He was a conservative governor facing a veto-proof [Democratic] supermajority in both houses dead-set on a particular kind of health care reform.”

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