BOSTON — Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has had an epiphany on abortion - not once, but twice.
The first time was when Romney was a young man in the 1960s and his brother-in-law's sister - an engaged-to-be-married teen who became pregnant - died in a botched illegal abortion.
Roughly three decades later, while campaigning for the Senate in 1994, Romney described that tragedy as the event that triggered his conclusion that regardless of personal beliefs, abortion should be safe and legal.
He repeated that position while running for Massachusetts governor in 2002. In both contests, he attempted to underscore his support for abortion rights as he sought the favor of moderate and liberal voters.
Today, as Romney plots a national campaign for president - he makes a formal announcement on Tuesday - he is seeking to reassure social conservatives pivotal to winning the GOP nomination that he sincerely opposes abortion. He describes himself as pro-life, argues that Roe v. Wade should be replaced with state abortion regulations, and cites the science he studied amid a legislative debate over embryonic stem cell research as the basis for his position.
Romney says his moment of illumination about the immorality of abortion came two years ago during a meeting with an embryonic stem cell researcher.
"The comment was made that this really wasn't a moral issue, because the embryos were terminated or destroyed at 14 days," Romney said during a recent campaign stop in Mount Pleasant, S.C., in a reprise of other recent explanations of his thinking on abortion.
"And it struck me very powerfully at that point, that the Roe v. Wade approach has so cheapened the value of human life that someone could think it's not a moral issue to destroy embryos that have been created solely for the purpose of research, and I said to my chief of staff, and that's been 2 1/2 years ago, I said to her, 'I want to make it very clear that I'm pro-life.'"
The Harvard University researcher with whom Romney met, Douglas Melton, has disputed Romney's recollection of their Nov. 9, 2004, meeting in the governor's Statehouse office.
"Governor Romney has mischaracterized my position; we didn't discuss killing or anything related to it," Melton said in a December statement to The Boston Globe. "I explained my work to him, told him about my deeply held respect for life and explained that my work focuses on improving the lives of those suffering from debilitating diseases."
Melton did not respond to an interview request from The Associated Press.
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Romney's acknowledged abortion switch - and the abandonment of such a deeply personal justification for his initial position - has some critics asking whether he has a philosophical core.
"While Mitt Romney says he's not a multiple-choice candidate, his record shows that he has routinely changed his position on everything from abortion to taxes, making it difficult to know where he stands," said Stacie Paxton, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.
A Romney spokesman conceded the change but said Romney's current position is equally heartfelt and not political in nature.
"Governor Romney's personal experience with a family member impacted his view of the subject 15 years ago, but in grappling with the issue as an elected governor, he reconsidered the issue. That brought him to a personal decision and public policy decision where he felt it was important to protect the sanctity of life," said Kevin Madden, Romney's press secretary.
Madden added: "Any time a person deals with an important or delicate issue like this, there are moments that provide clarity, and this was clearly an issue where the governor realized he was wrong in the past and is clearly and firmly dedicated to advocating the position of protecting life."
Personal beliefs, experiences
Romney, who is Mormon, has long said he personally opposes abortion. The Mormon church opposes abortion with some rare exceptions.
Yet during an Oct. 25, 1994, debate with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., Romney said: "Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me, that passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter, and you will not see me wavering on that."
Romney later identified the relative as the teenage sister of his brother-in-law, Loren "Larry" Keenan. He was married to Romney's elder sister, Lynn. Keenan died in 2005.
Romney, who would have been in his 20s when the teen died, told reporters after the Senate debate, "I hadn't thought much about" abortion, but that the young woman's death "obviously makes one see that regardless of one's beliefs about choice, that you would hope it would be safe and legal."
Romney's other sister, Jane, said in an interview that the teen who died "was a beautiful, talented girl. We all loved" her. She said the teen was engaged when she became pregnant but sought an abortion even though they were illegal at the time.
"It was her fiancee" who was the father, Jane Romney Robinson said. "She obviously was upset."
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