- Tom Tomorrow
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.