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Party of Life
Why Toomey vs. Specter matters.


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Paul Kengor

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Republicans like myself will cast a ballot for either long-time senator Arlen Specter or three-term congressman Pat Toomey. The winner will secure the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate and take on the Democratic nominee in November. Specter is probably the Senate’s most liberal Republican, representing the old Northeast/Rockefeller-wing of the GOP. Toomey is a conservative, in the mold of the Reagan wing that today dominates the party.

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The most crucial difference between the two men concerns their stance on abortion. Toomey is staunchly pro-life. Specter is adamantly pro-choice. And that’s why this election really matters, and certainly beyond just Pennsylvanians.

If Specter defeats Toomey, and the GOP holds its Senate majority in November–which it likely will–he will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee. If that happens, pro-life Republicans will face the appalling prospect of a Republican chairman blocking President George W. Bush’s pro-life appointments to the bench, including the Supreme Court, or supporting a President John F. Kerry’s pro-choice picks.

Equally frustrating, Pennsylvania is a pro-life state, where one need not be pro-choice to succeed politically. Our other senator, Republican Rick Santorum, is one of the Senate’s top pro-lifers. We elected a pro-life Democrat as governor, twice: He was Robert Casey, a voice of conscience whom the Democratic Party refused to let articulate the pro-life position at the 1992 convention.

The Toomey-Specter election speaks to the future of the GOP. The Democratic Party has become the pro-choice party. If you want abortion on demand, you pull the Democratic lever. That will be especially true in the coming presidential election, where Democrats will run the most fiercely pro-choice candidate ever to receive a major party nomination for president. (At the 2003 NARAL Pro-Choice America Dinner, Senator Kerry described pro-lifers as “the forces of intolerance.”)

The Republican Party is the pro-life party. That was the wish of the architect of the modern GOP: Ronald Reagan, the man whom George W. Bush most resembles politically, including on the abortion issue.

To Reagan, abortion was not merely a political matter; it was a moral matter–actually, it was a Biblical matter. In a January 1984 speech to the National Religious Broadcasters convention, he said: “God’s most blessed gift to his family is the gift of life. He sent us the Prince of Peace as a babe in the manger.” Like the 19th-century clergy who led the movement to abolish slavery, Reagan as a Christian saw himself as similarly duty-bound to fight abortion, which he equated with slavery in terms of moral outrage–an analogy that in turn outraged the New York Times. He made the analogy to the religious broadcasters, and quoted Jesus Christ in the process:

“This nation fought a terrible war so that black Americans would be guaranteed their God-given rights. Abraham Lincoln recognized that we could not survive as a free land when some could decide whether others should be free or slaves. Well, today another question begs to be asked: How can we survive as a free nation when some decide that others are not fit to live and should be done away with?

“I believe no challenge is more important to the character of America than restoring the right to life to all human beings. Without that right, no other rights have meaning. ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for such is the kingdom of God.’”

Together, Reagan assured the religious broadcasters, they could convince their fellow countrymen that America “should, can, and will preserve God’s greatest gift”: the right to life. In his 1986 State of the Union address, Reagan lamented: “Today there is a wound in our national conscience. America will never be whole as long as the right to life granted by our Creator is denied to the unborn.”

Ronald Reagan was politically much more flexible than assumed, but abortion was a moral issue on which he refused to compromise as president. He understood what pro-choice Republicans do not: Abortion is the preeminent moral problem of our time.

On Reagan’s side is one of the most influential moral thinkers of our generation, Pope John Paul II, who has framed the subject even more starkly: Pro-choicers are foot soldiers in what he has characterized as the Culture of Death. We need a culture that embraces life and fights to protect the unborn, not one that battles for the “right” to partial-birth abortion or for taxpayer funding of abortion.

And it’s that which is at stake for Pennsylvania Republicans on Tuesday, April 27. Should the GOP be the Party of Reagan or be complicit in the Culture of Death?

Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan and professor of political science at Grove City College.



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