WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney accused President Obama this week of ordering “religious organizations to violate their conscience,’’ referring to a White House decision that requires all health plans - even those covering employees at Catholic hospitals, charities, and colleges - to provide free birth control. But a review of Romney’s tenure as Massachusetts governor shows that he once took a similar step.
In December 2005, Romney required all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, even though some Catholics view the morning-after pill as a form of abortion.
He said he was acting on his legal counsel’s interpretation of a new state law - one passed by lawmakers despite his veto - but he also said that “in his heart of hearts,’’ he believed that rape victims should have access to emergency contraception.
Some Catholic leaders now point to inconsistency in Romney’s criticism of the president and characterize his new stance as politically expedient, even as they welcome it.
“The initial injury to Catholic religious freedom came not from the Obama administration but from the Romney administration,’’ said C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts. “President Obama’s plan certainly constitutes an assault on the constitutional rights of Catholics, but I’m not sure Governor Romney is in a position to assert that, given his own very mixed record on this.’’
Other Catholic leaders say they are inclined to give Romney the benefit of the doubt and have faith he will uphold his promise to overturn federal health regulations that they say impinge on religious organizations’ rights.
Romney’s more recent position on the issue - as reflected at his Tuesday night victory party in Tampa, where he vowed to “defend religious liberty and overturn regulations that trample on our first freedom’’ - is echoed by many Republicans. Among them is House Speaker John Boehner, who yesterday called upon the Obama administration to reconsider the decision to make most religiously affiliated employers cover contraception in their health plans.
Romney’s campaign has touted endorsements from prominent abortion foes such as Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and founder of Women Affirming Life.
But GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, a Catholic, has accused Romney of trampling on “religious liberty’’ at Catholic hospitals, apparently for his 2005 decision as governor.
“You want a war on the Catholic Church by Obama?’’ Gingrich said at a rally earlier this week in Tampa. “Guess what: Romney refused to allow Catholic hospitals to have conscience in their dealing with certain circumstances.’’
The Romney campaign, asked this week about his past actions on the issue, issued a statement Wednesday noting that he had originally vetoed the bill giving rape victims access to emergency contraception.
“The governor’s position on this law was that it never should have gone into effect in the first place, which is why he vetoed it,’’ the statement said. Asked yesterday to explain his 2005 comments in a Globe interview about believing in his “heart of hearts’’ that rape victims were entitled to emergency contraception, the campaign did not respond.
The series of events in 2005 involved several legal and political turns at a time when Romney was shifting from moderate positions on social issues he had taken when running for governor to prepare to run for president in a Republican Party that is far to the right of the Bay State electorate.
Romney had angered reproductive rights advocates in July 2005 when he vetoed a bill to make the morning-after pill available over the counter at Massachusetts pharmacies and to require hospitals to make it available to rape victims, even though he had supported emergency contraception during his 2002 campaign for governor. He justified his veto in a Globe op-ed article in which he clearly accepted the view of some opponents of emergency contraception that it can be a form of abortion. Nonetheless, the Legislature overrode his veto.
In December of that year, days before the law was to go into effect, Romney’s public health commissioner determined that a preexisting statute saying private hospitals could not be forced to provide abortions or contraception gave Catholic and other privately run hospitals the right to opt out of the new law on religious or moral grounds.
That ruling sparked widespread criticism, including some by Romney’s lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey. Days later the Romney administration reversed course. His legal counsel concluded the new law did not provide any religious exemptions.
Further confusing voters on his position, Romney said he supported the use of emergency contraception by rape victims. “My personal view, in my heart of hearts, is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information,’’ he said.
Doyle, of the Catholic Action League, said that Romney should have fought harder to reinstate the religious exemption and that he now doubts Romney’s sincerity in advocating for religious freedom if he becomes president.
“Governor Romney afterwards lamented that and campaigned around the country as someone in favor of religious freedom and traditional morality,’’ Doyle said. “He is very consistent at working both sides of the street on the same issue at the same time. His record on this issue has been one of very cynical and tactical manipulation.’’
Other Catholic leaders praised Romney’s evolution.
Matt Smith, president of Catholic Advocate, a national grassroots organization with the goal of motivating Catholics to support policies and candidates consistent with church teachings, said that although he has not endorsed a candidate, he applauds Romney for his “progression on these issues’’ over the last seven years and “for recognizing that you’ve got religious organizations being forced to violate their conscience.’’
“I try to be charitable in this regard,’’ Smith said. “You better hope that he’s going to stay true to his word.’’
Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, also said she does not doubt Romney’s evolution and does not fault him for the 2005 position his legal counsel recommended. She plans to back whoever ends up being the Republican nominee.
Senior Obama administration officials said yesterday their decision to require Catholic institutions to provide birth control in their insurance plans struck the appropriate balance. It both respects religious beliefs and ensures women have affordable access to birth control, given that 98 percent of Catholic women use contraception. Churches are exempt from the requirement.
A spokeswoman for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, whose members include the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College, said yesterday that the association does not support the White House mandate.
The decision “violates a basic right of religious freedom,’’ the association said in a statement. “For our Jesuit faith-based institutions, this regulatory mandate violates the very essence of our mission and deeply held beliefs.’’
Other Catholic-affiliated organizations, including the six former Caritas Christi Catholic hospitals in Massachusetts, offer birth control as a part of their employee health insurance plans.
The six hospitals, now owned by Steward Health Care System, also provide emergency contraception to rape victims following a pregnancy test to ensure they are not already pregnant, said Chris Murphy, spokesman for the hospital system.Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com.