It was during the sweltering summer of 1983 that the family of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made its celebrated escape from the oppressive New England heat for the cooler climes of Beach O’ Pines, Ontario, where the family owns a beachfront cottage on the shores of Lake Huron. Prior to departure, Romney placed the family dog, an Irish setter named Seamus, into a dog carrier and lashed it to the roof of the family’s Chevy station wagon for the 12-hour exodus into Canada. The infamous dog ride (dubbed the “Seamus incident”) was to become a full-blown issue in the 2012 presidential primaries, as Romney’s Republican opponents invoked the incident to attack his character.
A far more ominous tale in the Romney canon, however, also took place that summer, one that has been largely swept under the rug as the former governor of Massachusetts challenges incumbent Barack Obama for the presidency.
It was in August of that year, shortly after the Romney family returned from their vacation, that a pregnant woman in her late 30s, Carrel Hilton Sheldon, was informed by her doctor that she had a life-threatening blood clot lodged in her pelvic region. In treating the clot, Sheldon was administered an overdose of the blood thinner know as Heparin, which not only resulted in significant internal bleeding but also extensive damage to her kidneys, to the point where she was on the verge of needing a transplant. Her life was clearly in peril. Sheldon’s doctor told her that the overdose of Heparin might have also harmed her eight-week-old fetus, and, given the possible fatal repercussions to her, he recommended that she terminate her pregnancy.
Sheldon, a mother of four at the time (a fifth child had died as an infant), was then a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The LDS leader in Massachusetts at that time, her “stake president,” was a Harvard-trained physician, and he counseled Sheldon to follow her doctor’s advice to terminate the pregnancy and protect her own life. “Of course you should have the abortion,” she recalls him saying.
According to an account later written anonymously by Sheldon for the LDS women’s journal Exponent II, it was after receiving this counsel supporting the potentially life-saving procedure that she experienced an uninvited visit in the hospital room from her Mormon bishop at the time, 36-year-old Mitt Romney, who adamantly opposed the abortion. Romney, according to Sheldon, “told me that ‘As your bishop, my concern is with the child.'”
Mormon congregations are called “wards” or “branches,” depending on their size. There are no full-time priests or ministers, as there are in most Protestant and Catholic churches, but rather lay bishops, chosen to serve as the spiritual leaders of their wards. Larger amalgamations of LDS churches are called “stakes,” and their leaders, also lay members of the church, are called “stake presidents,” something akin, according to the official LDS website, to the position of a bishop in a Catholic diocese.
By the time of his visit to Sheldon’s hospital room, Romney was a rising star in Mormon circles. In 1981, when he was only 34 years old, he was named bishop of a ward just outside of Boston and was serving in that capacity when he confronted Sheldon about her pending abortion.
There was no empathy forthcoming from Romney, according to Sheldon, no warmth or sympathy. “At a time when I would have appreciated nurturing and support from spiritual leaders and friends,” Sheldon writes, “I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice and rejection.”
In essence, Romney strapped Sheldon’s destiny to the hood of his Chevy and put his foot on the gas pedal. He was so agitated about the matter that he confronted Sheldon’s parents about her decision as well. “I have never been so upset about anything in my life,” Sheldon’s father told a reporter. “[Romney] is an authoritative-type fellow who thinks he is in charge of the world.”
Back at the hospital, a distraught Carrel Hilton Sheldon assented to her doctor’s advice and terminated her pregnancy. She recovered from her medical crisis, moved to the West Coast, continued to raise her four children, and, because of her ward bishop Mitt Romney, she eventually left the church, never to return.
“He can seem very distant, unattached at times, almost heartless,” says Judith Dushku, a lifelong Mormon and an associate professor of government at Suffolk University in Boston. Dushku has known Romney since the early 1970s, when they were both active in the LDS. Romney later served as her ward bishop, from 1981 to 1986, and as her stake president from 1986 until 1994, when he ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate against Edward M. Kennedy.
Dushku sees a disturbing pattern in the Romney résumé that can be traced as far back as his two-year Mormon missionary work in France during the late 1960s. “I don’t have a sense that Mitt went on his mission to understand people, to engage them as human beings, but rather to excel in the eyes of the church,” says Dushku. “It was about fulfilling an assignment, not about compassion. And that has been his modus operandi his entire life.”
Raised in a Navy family that moved around the country, and a 1964 graduate of Brigham Young University, Dushku (who is also the mother of actress Eliza Dushku of television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) identifies herself as a “social democrat,” so she and Romney have often found themselves on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to politics. That said, she describes the two of them as being friends in those early years in Boston, along with being Mormon brethren, although never seemingly on the same plane.
Dushku was a single mother of four at the time and, she says, Romney never seemed to be particularly comfortable in the company of unmarried Mormon mothers. “I mean, if you were seated at a table with him and other Mormon men,” she says, “you weren’t likely to be included in the conversation. [Romney] thought that any woman that wasn’t married to someone who can support them, who wasn’t following church tradition in that respect, was just almost too unusual to consider in any collegial way.”
Perhaps no other woman in the country—a feminist Mormon who has known Romney for nearly 40 years and who practiced in the LDS church of Massachusetts while Romney was in various positions of church leadership there—has such a unique perspective on the Republican candidate and his relationship to issues affecting women as does Dushku.
With rare exception this campaign season—the primary one being an extensive interview in Religion Dispatches with Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl—these voices have not been heard in the mainstream media as part of the cumulative cacophony defining Romney for the American electorate. In many ways, he’s been issued a free pass on his record as a Mormon Church leader, particularly in respect to his record on women and issues that impact their lives.
There was another problematic incident that took place during Romney’s tenure as ward bishop, in 1984, involving another Mormon woman, Peggie Hayes.
Then 24 and active in the LDS church where Romney served as ward bishop, Hayes was a divorced, single mother of a four-year-old daughter living in the Boston area. Her family had been close to the Romneys and she trusted Mitt Romney as a friend and mentor, even as a “father figure.”
In the winter of 1984, after Hayes had given birth to a son, Dane, Romney visited her home in the blue-collar neighborhood of Sommerville. The Romneys had been good to Hayes, she says, hiring her to help clean their basement and then urging other friends to help her find odd jobs. She was expecting more of the same type of support when Romney visited her home. Instead she was “shocked” by what she heard. According to Hayes, Romney “pressured” her to give her son up for adoption through an LDS agency.
At first she thought she had misunderstood him, but much to her horror, she hadn’t. “[Romney] told me it was really important to give the baby up,” Hayes said in her original interview with Globe reporters Frank Phillips and Scot Lehigh nearly two decades ago. “He told me he was a representative of the church, and by refusing, I was failing to comply with the church’s wishes and could be excommunicated.”
Hayes took Romney’s admonition as a threat. She felt attacked, even intimidated. Moreover, it was insulting. “He was saying that because Dane didn’t have a Mormon father in the home and because of the circumstances of his birth—being born to a single mother—then the expectation of the church was that I give him up for adoption to the church agency so he could be raised by a Mormon couple in good standing.”
Hayes rejected Romney’s advice and kept her son. She eventually completed her master’s degree at Emerson College and today serves as coordinator of volunteers for the Watertown Free Public Library outside of Boston. “I made absolutely the best decision for that kid,” Hayes declares. “He’s a wonderful young man. If there is a God, I think the last thing he would have wanted is for me to give my son away just on somebody else’s decision.”
She, too, like Carrel Hilton Sheldon a year earlier, eventually dropped out of the church.
These stories involving Mormon women of different age and different status in the church community—and all coming from when Romney was in a hierarchical (and, indeed, patriarchal) position of power over them—form an alarming, composite pattern of Romney’s leadership career for more than a decade in the LDS Church.
“Romney just doesn’t have any sensitivity to women’s issues,” says Dushku. “But even more than that, he genuinely believes he’s always right, that he’s never made a mistake. In Mitt’s view, no one else has anything to offer.”
Romney—and Republicans in general—is experiencing a significant gender gap at the polls this election season, with the most recent poll conducted by the YWCA indicating that Obama is leading Romney by 49 to 31 percent. In respect to issues that most directly impact women, this should come as no surprise.
As Republicans gathered in Tampa to coronate Romney as their nominee, several Republican speakers mocked the Obama slogan of “Forward.” As Rebecca Traister, Salon columnist and author of Big Girls Don’t Cry, noted, they seemed to be calling instead for a “moment back in time” when “only a select few—the white, the male, the straight, the Protestant—could reasonably expect to exert political or financial or social or sexual power.”
In word and deed, Traister observed, Republicans “have been telegraphing their hope to return us to a moment not just before Roe, but before the birth-control pill, before the sexual revolution, before second-wave feminism hammered pesky terms like ‘harassment’ and ‘equal pay’ into our lexicon, to a moment when women’s bodies and sexuality and identities were men’s to define, patrol and violate at will.”
Romney, it would appear, is the perfect Republican candidate to bring us back to that patriarchal future.
Last week, as Dushku watched the first of the presidential debates, she saw a competent, even “slick” politician sparring with President Obama, but she also saw someone who is a political chameleon.
“He’s not a man who has anything like a moral core,” she says. “He’s very loyal to the Mormon church, pays his tithing, is faithful to his wife and so on, but he doesn’t have a set of core values you can count on. I’ve known him for nearly 40 years. He may have a different suit on, but he hasn’t changed; his experience hasn’t changed. His performance was very consistent to the Mitt I knew back then. He can’t relate to average working women. He’s still coming from a place of privilege and entitlement.”