MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Today, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed the National Right to Life Committee's annual convention in Kansas City. Romney's evolving views on abortion have dominated much of the coverage of his campaign. In 2002, he ran for governor of Massachusetts as a pro-choice candidate. Now he says his earlier views on abortion were wrong.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Outside the Hyatt Hotel in Kansas City, a man in an oversized dolphin suit waddled along the sidewalk. The dolphin wore a T-shirt that said: Flip Romney.

Ever since he launched his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney has been accused of flip-flopping on abortion and stem cell research. But speaking to about 400 delegates at the National Right to Life Convention, Romney denied the charge and said he converted to the pro-life cause soon after becoming elected governor of Massachusetts.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): And I proudly follow a long line of converts - George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan, Henry Hyde - just to name a few. I'm evidence that your work, that your relentless campaign to promote the sanctity of human life bears fruit.

(Soundbite of applause)

BEAUBIEN: Romney said the turning point for him on abortion came when he was looking at the issue of stem cells. In the past, Romney supported limited government funding for stem cell research, but Romney said he found stem cell researchers casually cloning and farming embryos.

Mr. ROMNEY: The slippery slope was taking us to racks and racks of human living embryos, Brave-New-World-like, awaiting termination. What some people see as just a clump of cells is actually human life.

BEAUBIEN: Speaking to the pro-life convention today, he came out strongly against any expansion of stem cell research.

Mr. ROMNEY: But for me, a bright moral line is crossed when we create new life for the sole purpose of experimentation and ultimate destruction. And that's why I fought to keep cloning and embryo farming illegal in our state. It was…

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ROMNEY: And by the way, I'm talking about illegal, not just federal funding or state funding, I mean, illegal.

BEAUBIEN: He said the battle over stem cells in Massachusetts made him also realize that abortion is wrong. He says he no longer views abortion as a personal choice but a societal issue. Romney described Roe versus Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion that's continuing to work its destructive logic throughout our society.

Two other Republican presidential hopefuls also attended the pro-life convention - Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback. Brownback has ardently opposed abortion throughout his political career. He said this isn't the case for Romney.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): But in the past, he has said unequivocally he's pro-choice. And he's saying now that he's pro-life.

BEAUBIEN: Brownback says voters want a candidate who's consistent. Romney, however, was warmly received at the convention. The former governor got a standing ovation as he left the podium. Jerry Needers(ph), who was in the crowd, said he'd been concerned about Romney's pro-choice past.

Mr. JERRY NEEDERS (Member, National Right To Life): I'm more comfortable with him now than I was before his speech, I'll say that.

BEAUBIEN: And ultimately, how important is this issue to you when it comes to voting in the presidential race?

Mr. NEEDERS: It's a threshold issue for me. I mean, without life what other issue is important?

BEAUBIEN: But not everyone was swayed by Romney's conversion.

Mr. BOB ENYART (Colorado Right To Life): Mitt Romney is a liar. And long after he said he converted to the pro-life position, he's still advocating the right to kill an unborn child.

Bob Enyart is with Colorado Right To Life. He contends that while governor, Romney allowed abortions to continue to be carried out in Massachusetts.

Mr. ENYART: So he's not pro-life. He has a primary conversion like so many Republican candidates who claim to find God. They repent from adultery and focus on the family's radio program. They become pro-life during the primary cycle and we had been lied to for a quarter of the century.

BEAUBIEN: Enyart says Republican presidential candidates should not only oppose abortion but they should refuse to support any potential Republican nominee who's pro-choice.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kansas City.

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