Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
Half-True
Obama
Says Romney and Ryan "both backed proposals that would outlaw abortions even in cases of rape or incest."

Barack Obama on Tuesday, September 11th, 2012 in a campaign ad

Obama ties Romney and Ryan to abortion ban with no rape, incest exceptions

Charges Romney and Ryan have opposed abortion without rape and incest exceptions

CORRECTION: We have corrected this item to note that Mitt Romney has said he would allow abortion when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. We had mistakenly said "health" of the mother in our original version.

With women voters as a key swing group in this election, Barack Obama continues to attack Mitt Romney on abortion. The Obama campaign made abortion rights a central point at the Democratic convention and now has launched yet another television ad that casts Romney as favoring the most hardline position on abortion rights.

The ad is called "Dangerous" and it says Romney and running mate Paul Ryan "both backed proposals that would outlaw abortions even in cases of rape or incest."

This is different from previous claims from the Obama campaign. During the summer, the campaign attacked Romney for backing a strict anti-abortion bill with no exception for rape and incest. In fact, that claim was based on a moment in a 2007 debate when there was no mention of exceptions one way or the other and there was no actual bill. The claim was factually inaccurate and distorted Romney's explicit support for precisely those exceptions. The combination of inaccuracy and misdirection earned the Obama campaign a Pants on Fire rating. This time, the Obama team speaks of something broader -- a ‘proposal’ -- and it includes Ryan's position.

Recently, the Obama camp tweeted that Ryan would ban all abortions even in cases of rape and incest. The use of the word ‘all’ earned that claim a rating of Half True.

That's because Ryan favors an exception where an abortion is needed to save the life of the mother. However, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported, he opposes exceptions for rape and incest. The National Right to Life Committee concurs, based on information the group collected in 1998 and 2000 from Ryan as a candidate. The anti-abortion group gives Ryan a 100 percent rating. Ryan now says he will follow Romney’s policy.

But the current Obama ad does away with the "all" and so its claim for Ryan stands on solid ground.

On Romney, the record is murky.

To be sure, he has flip-flopped on the issue, earning a Full Flop on PolitiFact's Flip-O-Meter. His current stance, as he prominently posted in the pages of the National Review in 2011, is to outlaw abortion except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape and incest. He would press to see Roe vs. Wade overturned and allow states to set their own rules on abortion.

The charge that he went beyond that view rests on an interview he had with former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, on Fox television. Huckabee asked Romney about a Massachusetts law that helped cover the costs of abortion. Romney said it would take a state constitutional amendment to change that and then Huckabee asked, "Would you have supported a constitutional amendment that would have established the definition of life as conception?"

Romney replied, "Absolutely."

To Democrats, this was the same as if Romney had said he supported a personhood amendment. A personhood measure was on the ballot in Mississippi and had it passed, the impacts would have been profound.

"It would definitely ban abortion," said Glenn Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Law. Cohen is co-director of the law school’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law, Biotechnology and Bioethics and assessed the Mississippi measure.

But it is unclear if Romney was endorsing a personhood amendment because Huckabee never used the word ‘personhood’. Nor did Huckabee mention Mississippi.

"Life beginning at conception is a general statement," said Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, a group opposed to abortion. "A personhood amendment is a specific piece of legislation."

When we contacted the Obama campaign, a spokeswoman cited this interview as evidence that Romney had endorsed a personhood amendment in Massachusetts. But there is little proof that such an amendment ever existed.

Neither Fox nor Cohen, two people who closely follow the legal framework for abortion in Massachusetts, have ever seen the text of a personhood amendment in their state. While there is a website to recruit activists to put such a measure on the ballot in Massachusetts, it is registered to a Keith Mason in Colorado. The home page says "The organizers that got personhood on the ballot in Colorado, would like to help in Massachusetts as well." Keith Mason is the president of Personhood USA, an amendment advocacy group.

Further, Cohen argues that the legal gap between ‘life begins at conception’ and personhood is large.

"Saying "life" begins at fertilization is quite different from saying "personhood" does. No one denies that fetuses or embryos are alive, but many dispute that they are persons in the sense that they have legal rights -- at least not to be destroyed without very good reason." Cohen said.

Would these legal distinctions matter to every anti-abortion activist? Not necessarily. Throughout the history of this debate, the phrase "life begins at conception" has often been synonymous with banning abortions. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, makes that connection and, as we noted, would make no exception for rape and incest. These lexical associations further muddy the meaning of Romney’s answer to Huckabee.

Romney has kept specific personhood measures at arm’s length. He never endorsed the Mississippi ballot measure. Claiming a scheduling conflict, he did not participate in personhood candidate forums in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida sponsored by Personhood USA.

Romney’s relations with Personhood USA have been rocky. The group accused him of "throwing a pro-life congressman under the bus" when Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin made controversial comments about rape victims and Romney said Akin should withdraw from the race. Romney refused to sign the Personhood USA pledge that mirrors the Mississippi measure. On some occasions, however, the group has spoken well of Romney.

Our ruling

Barack Obama said in a television ad that Romney and Ryan Romney "both backed proposals that would outlaw abortions even in cases of rape or incest."

That is true for Ryan. His opposition to abortion, including in cases of rape and incest, is clear. Romney chose Ryan as his running mate and now Ryan says he’ll follow Romney’s lead.

Romney has said he supports an amendment that defines life as beginning at conception. When he said that, there was no specific amendment language for him to consider. The term "life begins at conception" is strongly associated with banning abortion, and in some advocates’ view, without exception for rape and incest.

But Romney has distanced himself from formal personhood amendments and he made clear in National Review that he supports exceptions for rape or incest. Still, his words and his choice of Ryan tend to blur the distinctions that he himself would emphasize.

We rate the statement Half True.