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Joan Vennochi

Is he pro-life, pro-choice, or just pro-Mitt?

Never underestimate Mitt Romney’s willingness to reinvent himself — anytime, any place, any issue.

He shifted his position on taxes during last week’s debate with a passive President Obama. This week, he tried to soften his stance on abortion, telling the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, “There’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”

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How quickly Romney forgets Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision which struck down laws restricting abortion. Changing the law of the land was definitely part of his agenda — or so he repeatedly said on the presidential campaign trail. As he worked to woo suspicious pro-life voters during the primaries, Romney declared support for overturning the 1973 landmark decision and said he hoped to appoint justices who would reverse it. He also said he would cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Writing for The National Review on June 18, 2011, under the headline “My Pro-Life Pledge,” Romney called for the reversal of Roe v. Wade, calling it “a misguided ruling that was a result of a small group of activist federal judges legislating from the bench.” He also said he would “advocate for and support” legislation “to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.”

Romney’s campaign quickly clarified the comments the candidate made to the Des Moines newspaper, stating that “Mitt Romney is proudly pro-life and he will be a pro-life president.” Of course with Romney, being proudly pro-life depends on the meaning of pro-life — or is it the meaning of pro-choice?

Shannon O’Brien, the Democrat who lost to Romney in their 2002 race for governor of Massachusetts, said that whenever she hears about his staff “walking him back, the image I have is of this agitated dementia patient walking off in one direction. Then, the staff grabs him and walks him back to where he’s supposed to be.”

When it comes to abortion, Romney has been walking around in circles since he first ran for office in Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy.

During their iconic 1994 showdown in Faneuil Hall, Romney told voters. “I believe abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I believe that since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years, that we should sustain and support that law and the right of a woman to make that choice.”

Kennedy, who didn’t buy Romney’s pro-choice persona then, famously dubbed his opponent “multiple choice” — a line that O’Brien threw back at Romney during their 2002 debate. However, in his effort to sell himself as a moderate to Massachusetts voters, Romney pledged once again to “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose.” Scolding O’Brien for raising doubts about his pro-choice credentials, he said “Your effort to continue to try and create fear and deception here is unbecoming.”

He beat O’Brien and won the governor’s office. Then, when he started running for president, Romney began his well-documented switch to pro-life.

It began in 2005, when he told the Globe, “I believe that abortion is the wrong choice except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of a mother.” By 2007, he was saying that Roe v. Wade “cheapened the value of human life.” He said he supported an amendment to the Constitution that would legally define personhood beginning at conception. At times, he has also expressed support for constitutional amendments at both the state and federal level that would give constitutional protections to the unborn from the moment of fertilization.

If that’s what he believes, that’s what he believes. But is it really what he believes?

Paul Ryan, Romney’s vice presidential pick, opposes abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest; Romney supports those exceptions. The platform adopted by Republicans at their national convention explicitly calls for a constitutional ban on abortion, stating that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” No exceptions are stipulated in the party platform.

In Tampa, during the week of the Republican National Convention, Romney’s oldest sister, Jane, told the National Journal that a federal ban on abortion is “never going to happen” on her brother’s watch if he is elected president.

“He’s not going to be touching any of that,” Jane Romney said after a “Women for Mitt” event.

That’s easy for her to say and hard for anyone else to trust.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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