As someone who has “flipped” from one position to another (left to right, atheist to Christian), I have some sympathy for Mitt Romney. (To be sure, I had little to gain in the academy from either flip.) But Kathleen Parker’s account of how Mitt Romney approached the question of embryonic stem cell research makes him seem serious-minded and admirable:
The politically expedient choice was obvious, but Romney took a more thoughtful approach and sought to educate himself before staking out a position. Enter William Hurlbut, a physician and professor of biomedical ethics at Stanford University Medical School. For several hours, Hurlbut and Romney met in the governor’s office and went through the dynamics of conception, embryonic development and the repercussions of research that targets nascent human life. It was not a light lunch.
The result of that conversation and others was a pro-life Romney, who kept his campaign promise to honor the state’s democratically asserted preference for abortion choice but also began a personal path that happened to serve him well, at least theoretically, among social conservatives. Was his conversion sincere? No one can know another’s heart, but Hurlbut is convinced that it was.
“Several things about our conversation still stand out strongly in my mind,” Hurlbut told me. “First, he clearly recognized the significance of the issue, not just as a current controversy but as a matter that would define the character of our culture way into the future.
“Second, it was obvious that he had put in a real effort to understand both the scientific prospects and the broader social implications. Finally, I was impressed by both his clarity of mind and sincerity of heart. . . . He recognized that this was not a matter of purely abstract theory or merely pragmatic governance, but a crucial moment in how we are to regard nascent human life and the broader meaning of medicine in the service of life.”
Would this were the kind of “focus group” all our political leaders employed as they pondered the big questions of public life.
Joseph Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.