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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is all right from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Mitt Romney's position on abortion is raising new questions. Foremost among them, what exactly is his position? Romney said he supported abortion rights when he ran for office in Massachusetts. But he reversed himself before launching his presidential bid. Now, NPR's Julie Rovner reports that the GOP nominee seems to be softening his opposition in a bid to win over women voters.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Back in 2002, when Mitt Romney was running for governor of Massachusetts, he insisted during a debate that he was every bit as supportive of abortion rights as his Democratic opponent, Shannon O'Brien.

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MITT ROMNEY: And I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose. And I do take exception to Shannon characterizing my view as being any different than hers in this regard. The Boston Globe recently reported there's not a paper's width worth of difference between our two positions in this regard.

ROVNER: But that changed halfway through Romney's term as governor. He says his conversion came after he talked to a Harvard scientist about embryonic stem cells. Now, he says his position is to oppose almost all abortions. Here he is in late August on conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt's show.

ROMNEY: My own view is that I oppose abortion except for cases of rape, incest, and where the life of the mother is threatened.

ROVNER: That's slightly different from what he told CBS that same week. In that interview Romney added one more exception for the woman's health.

ROMNEY: My position has been clear throughout this campaign; I'm in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest and the health and life of the mother.

ROVNER: The Romney campaign won't say the candidate misspoke, but they do say he doesn't support an exception to protect the health of the pregnant woman. That's because other abortion opponents, including GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, insist it creates too large a loophole, since health often encompasses mental health too. Here's Ryan on the House floor during a debate several years ago on banning the procedure some call partial-birth abortion.

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REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: The health exception is a loophole wide enough to drive a Mac truck through it. The health exception would render this ban virtually meaningless.

ROVNER: That's a shame, says Beth Shipp. She's political director for the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. She says she's stunned by those who oppose exceptions for health reasons.

BETH SHIPP: They actually think that somehow women make up health problems like diabetes or kidney failure or breast cancer or any of the myriad of other health concerns that women in this country face when they become pregnant.

ROVNER: But even without a health exception, the question remains, does Romney really support abortions for victims of rape? The question has become more relevant in light of the recent controversy surrounding Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin. He suggested that victims of, quote, "legitimate rape" couldn't get pregnant, and later apologized. But for all of Romney's efforts to try to distance himself from Akin, when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney vetoed a bill that would have required that rape victims be provided not abortions, but morning-after pills in the emergency room. Again, NARAL's Shipp.

SHIPP: It's very important to remember that emergency contraception is birth control. It is not RU-486, which people refer to as the abortion pill.

ROVNER: Although some very ardent opponents say the morning-after pill can technically cause a very early abortion by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg, many medical experts insist that's not how it works. And the FDA classifies it as a contraceptive. Yet, Romney said it could, quote, "terminate life after conception" in a Boston Globe column explaining his veto. Now protecting life from conception is what the Republican platform calls for. It doesn't allow any exceptions, including those for rape, incest, or the life of the woman. Shipp says if that's Romney's position, then fine. But voters will see through it if he tries to go back and forth.

SHIPP: They pay attention. They learn about the issues. And every time that Mitt Romney tries to reinvent himself, they are going to say but wait a minute, I remember you said. You know, they do their homework. They understand the responsibility that comes with voting for the highest office in the land.

ROVNER: Last week, Romney's sister told reporters at the convention that her brother wasn't going to ban abortion if he becomes president. But comments like that one, clearly aimed at closing the candidate's sizable gender gap, could come as a rude surprise to social conservatives he's worked hard to woo for the past seven years. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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