Front-Runner Romney Skips Personhood Forum

A candidate forum was held in Greenville, S.C., Wednesday night, sponsored by the anti-abortion rights group Personhood USA. Participating in the event were Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry. Front-runner Mitt Romney did not attend. South Carolina holds its primary on Saturday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And four of the candidates appeared last night at a Greenville, South Carolina forum sponsored by an anti-abortion group. Personhood USA wants to set new legal definitions for when life begins, and the group held its forum in a state with many evangelical Christians who have strong views on abortion. NPR's Don Gonyea was there.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Abortion has not been a dominant topic in this year's contest in South Carolina largely because the state has a jobless rate of nearly 10 percent. Still, all of the GOP hopefuls call themselves pro-life, and all but Mitt Romney joined in last night's Personhood forum. Romney's credibility on the issue is often questioned because he was pro-choice earlier in his career. His absence last night was noted several times, including right at the top by Personhood USA President Keith Mason.

KEITH MASON: We didn't know until last night, but I did get a phone call from one of his state representatives saying that there was a conflict and, you know, he was not able to make it.

GONYEA: Mason then noted that Romney also had a conflict and didn't attend a similar forum in Iowa. He said another will be held in advance of the upcoming Florida primary and that he hopes Romney can make that one. Personhood USA was behind an unsuccessful ballot initiative in Mississippi last year. That effort, to define life at the fertilization of an egg and not the implantation of that fertilized egg in the uterus, failed. Even some in the right to life movement worried that it was unwise politically that it would be struck down by courts while stirring up the opposition in the process. Last night's participants were Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, who joined from D.C. via satellite. Governor Perry went first, and here was the first question.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When are we a person with rights, under the law?

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: I would suggest to you it starts at conception.

GONYEA: The moderator pressed him, asking what he meant by conception.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Conception being defined as...

PERRY: When the sperm and the egg come together and pretty much - you got a different idea?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Next, Newt Gingrich - same question, though his answer was less playful than Perry's.

NEWT GINGRICH: We are fully human upon conception because all of the genetic patterns needed are in existence at that moment, and therefore the right should attach at that moment.

GONYEA: Gingrich also singled out an organization that is public enemy number one for many anti-abortion activists.

GINGRICH: We will defund Planned Parenthood sometime early in 2013.

GONYEA: Next up, Rick Santorum.

RICK SANTORUM: I think we give up too much, and others have in this campaign, by saying they believe life begins at conception. I don't think believe life begins at conception; I know life begins at conception and...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: The final speaker was Ron Paul, who was in line with the other candidates on when life begins. But he also suggested that the real solution is not necessarily a legal one.

REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: And the laws so often reflect the people's culture, but we cannot change the people's morality by writing more laws. We can write more and more laws, but eventually we have to change the hearts and the minds of the people. We need stronger families and we need more respect for life than the laws will respect.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you, Representative Paul, thank you. Thank you for talking to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: When it was over, the audience filed out, having seen an entire evening devoted to a topic that is, for many of them, still the issue in this and every election. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Greenville, South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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