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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg November 2, 2012

Florida Dems say Romney supported law that could have banned some kinds of birth control

In an effort to sway women voters, Democrats keep returning to the theme of abortion rights. They’ve run ad after ad linking Mitt Romney to some of the most extreme positions, such as banning all abortions -- even in cases of rape and incest.

A recent mailing from the Florida Democratic Party broadens the attack by claiming that "Romney supported a law that could have made most common forms of birth control illegal."

We have looked at several claims about Romney and abortion, but contraception has received less attention. We gave a True rating to the claim that he supports allowing employers to exclude contraceptive coverage from the health plans they offer their workers. This is the first time we have explored the question of whether Romney backed a law that would have blocked access to some contraceptive methods altogether.

The Florida Democratic Party’s argument runs like this: Romney believes that life begins at conception; that is the starting point for legal efforts to define a fertilized egg as a person; "personhood" laws would treat some forms of contraception as murder, so those would be illegal; therefore, Romney supports restrictions on contraceptives. We’ll walk through those steps.

The Florida Democrats pointed to the many times that Romney has said he believes life begins at conception.  He said it at a town hall event in Iowa in 2011 and on his campaign website. In an interview on Fox Television with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Romney said he would "absolutely" support a constitutional amendment that defined life as beginning at conception.

The Democrats also cited a PolitiFact article that found it Mostly True that Romney supports overturning Roe vs. Wade and an amendment on life beginning at conception.

But now we get to the most tenuous link in the Democrats’ argument. Laws that say conception gives rise to life are not the same as ones that say conception creates a person.

"Saying ‘life’ begins at fertilization is quite different from saying ‘personhood’ does," said Glenn Cohen, a specialist in legal bioethics at Harvard Law School. "No one denies that fetuses or embryos are alive, but many dispute that they are persons."

The legal difference is huge.

Christopher Tollefsen, a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina, explained that "to say that something is a ‘person’ is to say that it has a particular kind of moral status -- the sort of thing you can't kill and that deserves the protection of the law."

The 2011 Mississippi Personhood initiative is a good example. Amendment 26 stated that "the term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization." Had it passed, Amendment 26 would not only have led to a ban on most abortions, its effect would likely have gone further. Since it takes about eight or more days for a fertilized egg to implant in the wall of the uterus and there are birth control methods that prevent implantation, then such a law might well have made those methods illegal.

But Romney never supported the Mississippi measure or others like it. He and his campaign carefully avoided endorsing Amendment 26 without actually saying so. After the interview with Huckabee, Romney spokesman Ryan Williams was asked if Romney stood behind the initiative.

Romney was "supportive of efforts to recognize life begins at conception," Williams said. Neither Williams nor Romney ever said "personhood."

When personhood organizers asked Romney to participate in candidate forums, he declined.

He's also been clear about his support for contraception.

During the second presidential debate, Obama accused Romney of failing to stand up for women. Obama said Romney would allow employers to exclude birth control coverage from their health plans, an accurate account of Romney's position.

Romney's reply was something of a non-sequitur. Rather than explain that position, he addressed a different point -- whether the government or employers would prohibit the use of contraception, which is not what Obama was suggesting.

"I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not, and I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not," Romney said. "Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives."

Romney’s campaign then produced an ad that featured a young mother researching Romney’s position on birth control and abortion and then seeing a PolitiFact fact-check on abortion. "Turns out," she said, "Romney doesn’t oppose contraception at all."

Romney has argued that since contraceptives prevent fertilization, they never conflict with laws that say life begins at conception. For the most part, this is accurate. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the most common forms of birth control are the pill, (used by 17 percent of women), sterilization (16 percent) and condoms (10 percent). However, a less common form, the intrauterine device or IUD, that is used by about 3 percent of women, is thought to sometimes avoid pregnancy by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg in the wall of the uterus.

Thus, Romney’s argument might not be as simple as he presents. But again, defining life as beginning at conception has not interfered with birth control. Prior to and during part of Romney’s time as governor, Massachusetts law said life began at fertilization. That did not lead to statewide prohibitions on birth control.

Our ruling

The mailer from the Florida Democratic Party says Romney supported a law that could have made most common forms of birth control illegal.

Romney supports laws that define life as beginning at conception, but we have not found that these laws bar the use of contraceptives -- at least, certainly not the most common forms. Personhood laws could limit some forms of birth control, but Romney has not supported those measures. And Romney has repeatedly said he supports the use of contraceptives.

We rate the statement False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Florida Democratic Party, Mailer: Romney-Ryan on women’s health, October 26, 2012

Email interview with I. Glenn Cohen, professor of law, Harvard Law School, November 1, 2012

PolitiFact, Guide to Mitt Romney and abortion, October 19, 2012

Mitt Romney for President, Values

Mitt Romney for President, New abortion ad, October 16, 2012

Michigan Live, Editorial board interview with Mitt Romney,  February 15, 2012

Planned Parenthood Action, Fact sheet: Mitt Romney supports dangerous "personhood’ amendments, May 1, 2012

Email interview with Robert Terra, Mitt Romney for President, October 26, 2012

Email interview with Brannon Jordan, Florida Democratic Party, October 27, 2012

E-mail interview with Christopher Tollefsen, a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina, Nov. 8, 2011

New York Times, Full transcript of the second presidential debate, October 16, 2012

Centers for Disease Control, Use of contraception in the United States - 1982-2008, 2010

National Review, My Pro-Life Pledge, June 18, 2011

Personhood Mississippi, Amendment 26: What it says

Pharmacists for Life International,  The pill: Contraceptive or abortifacient

Commonwealth of Massachusetts, General Laws, Definition of unborn child

C-SPAN, Mitt Romney Town Hall Meeting - Sioux City, Iowa, October 20, 2011

PolitiFact, Says Mitt Romney "is committed to overturning Roe vs. Wade, and he supports such amendments that define a life as beginning at the moment of conception",  November 8, 2011

Fox, Huckabee, October 1, 2011

Personhood USA, Romney snubbing pro-lifers, August 24, 2012

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Florida Dems say Romney supported law that could have banned some kinds of birth control

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