Are Gingrich's abortion attacks on Romney fair?

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich makes remarks to members of the media Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012, in Beaufort, S.C. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

At last night's Republican presidential debate, Newt Gingrich attacked Mitt Romney for his changing position on abortion rights. The attacks included a claim that the universal health care law Romney signed as Massachusetts governor "does pay for tax-paid abortions."

Gingrich has been hammering Romney over abortion both on the South Carolina campaign trail and in his television ads. (One big reason: 60 percent of South Carolina Republican primary voters identified as "born again" or evangelical in 2008, and they want a candidate who opposes abortion rights.) Earlier this month the Gingrich campaign released a spot claiming that Romney "governed pro-abortion," and "signed government-mandated health care with taxpayer funded abortions." (Watch at left.)

Romney supported abortion rights prior to his run for president: In 1994, he said "abortion should be safe and legal in this country," and in 2002 said "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose, and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard." He now opposes them, tying his change of heart to a fight over stem cell research in 2004.

Gingrich is correct that "Romneycare" pays for abortion: As this document shows, low-income Massachusetts residents with subsidies for health care can get an abortion for $50.

But pinning this on Romney is misleading. A 1981 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision called payments for "medically necessary" abortions in state-subsidized health care plans a "fundamental right," a decision reaffirmed in 1997. Gingrich's implicit suggestion that "Romneycare" created taxpayer subsidies for abortions is not accurate - something Romney referenced in his response Thursday. (Indeed, the word "abortion" doesn't even appear in the Massachusetts health care law.)

"The courts in Massachusetts, the Supreme Court was the body that decided that all times that there was any subsidy of health care in Massachusetts that one received abortion care," he said. "That was not done by the legislature, would not be done by me either. I would have vetoed such a thing. That was done by the courts, not by the legislature or by me."

As FactCheck.org notes, you could argue Romney didn't do enough to limit abortions when he signed the law - though as FactCheck points out, "the number and rate of abortions declined after the health care overhaul in Massachusetts in 2006." As Jake Tapper notes, the health care law signed by Romney created a "connector" board, many of the members of which were Romney appointees or members of his cabinet. Romney also picked the executive director, Jon Kingsdale, who recommended an abortion co-pay of between $0 and $100, which was eventually approved. Romney's rivals could plausibly argue that the co-pay should have been higher if Romney wanted to limit abortions in the state - and some, including Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson, suggested as much in the 2008 campaign. 

Gingrich also said during the debate that Romney's health care plan "has written into it Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the country, by name." That's technically true, but it's also misleading. A search of the text of the law turns up one mention of Planned Parenthood, and all it says is that someone from the group will be appointed to a payment policy advisory board, along with a number of others; Gingrich's comments seemed designed to imply a far more prominent role for the group in the law.

Romney - who said in a 2002 gubernatorial debate that as governor, "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose, and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard" - now says he "was an avidly pro-life governor." At Thursday's debate, he also took umbrage at Gingrich's criticism, though he left himself a little wiggle room on the details.

"I am pro-life -- by the way, is there any possibility that I've ever made a mistake in that regard, I didn't see something that I should have seen? Possibly," he said. "But you can count on me, as president of the United States, to pursue a policy that protects the life of unborn, whether here in this country or overseas."

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