“I believe no challenge is more important to the character of America than restoring the right to life to all human beings.”
—Ronald Reagan, January 1984
Yes, yes, I know: A President Hillary Clinton would be Armageddon to the pro-life movement. There is no candidate — none — in the history of presidential politics as radical as Hillary Clinton on abortion. To pro-lifers, she absolutely must be defeated.
#ad#That said, Rudy Giuliani is not the answer, though he may be a lesser of two evils on the issue of abortion. Acknowledging his promise to appoint “strict constructionist” judges, there are still other areas in which Rudy would utterly fail pro-lifers; and one particular area (upon which I will focus) that is significantly unappreciated and far-reaching.
A pro-choice Republican president robs Republicans of the moral and rhetorical leadership that their presidents have provided on the abortion issue, especially under four terms of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. This critical reality is not grasped even by many pro-lifers, who whine about how 20 years of Republican presidents have failed to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The reality is that overturning Roe v. Wade is not easy. It indeed starts with changing the courts. In the meantime, however, there is much the president can and must do to influence public opinion on the abortion issue — to make the moral case, to argue the justness of the cause, and to plough the ground to ready Americans for a seismic shift in abortion policy. To that end, both Reagan and Bush provided significant leadership.
As testimony to Reagan’s outspokenness, I have on my desk a 45-page single-space document of quotes from Reagan on abortion, printed from the official Presidential Papers. In these, it is clear that Reagan saw himself as duty-bound to fight abortion, which he equated to slavery in terms of moral outrage.
“This nation fought a terrible war so that black Americans would be guaranteed their God-given rights,” Reagan said to the National Religious Broadcasters in January 1984. He goes on:
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.
Reagan anchored this cause to his faith, quoting the words of Christ: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for such is the kingdom of God.” He insisted that, “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.”
Reagan seized an occasion as high-profile as his 1986 State of the Union address to make this remarkable observation: “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.”
In the event of election, a President Giuliani would not say anything like this, which would mark an unfortunate turn in the perception of a Republican president. We have come to expect a rudderless lack of moral clarity from Democratic politicians; indeed, millions of pro-life Democrats have permanently parted ways with their party because of its leadership’s embrace of death to the defenseless unborn. To accept the same from a Republican president would be hard to stomach.
Similarly, George W. Bush has been eloquent on life issues, including new areas like human cloning and embryonic-stem-cell research. He said in April 2002:
As we seek to improve human life, we must always preserve human dignity…. Advances in biomedical technology must never come at the expense of human conscience. As we seek what is possible, we must always ask what is right, and we must not forget that even the most noble ends do not justify any means.
Bush has sought to lead and even teach in this area, rather than swimming with the tide of an unethical, relativistic culture. “Science has set before us decisions of immense consequence,” says Bush. “We can pursue medical research with a clear sense of moral purpose or we can travel without an ethical compass into a world we could live to regret…. Life is a creation, not a commodity.” Bush fears a Brave New World “in which human beings are grown for spare body parts; … that’s not acceptable.”
Americans have been guided by their president on this essential moral question of the 21st century. They would not receive the same from Rudy. Quite the contrary, in his case, they would find reinforcement for the liberal Democrat position that unborn life is to be exploited for the selfish purposes of the living.
Never underestimate the power of the bully pulpit. The Great Communicator did not. The president can dramatically affect public opinion through the words he uses and the causes he embraces. Reagan and Bush both did this in support of innocent, unborn life. In so doing, they have given the pro-life cause both hope and a home: the Republican party. The Democrats, conversely, have slammed the door shut.
The president is the leader of his party. With a President Giuliani, neither of the two party leaderships would be pro-life. That would be devastating to the cause of life, a reality apparently understood by the principled pro-life evangelicals and Catholics threatening to stay home or bolt to a third party if Rudy wins the nomination — and, yes, thereby electing Hillary Clinton. Clearly, they have thought through the destructive implications of a pro-choice Republican president, and are trying to stop a train wreck before it happens. Maybe they have a point.
– Paul Kengor has most recently published God and Hillary Clinton (HarperCollins, 2007) and The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007). He is professor of political science at Grove City College.