The Corner

Reagan and Abortion: Some Perspective

The liberal body-snatching operation on Reagan’s reputation, which I discuss at some length in my piece in the latest NRODT, typically calls him a pragmatic compromiser, which is the first step on the road to liberal perdition. This arises from the inability to distinguish principles from the compromises necessary to any practical politician. Just go back and read Reagan’s radio addresses from the 1970s, many of which still read like fresh Tea Party manifestos.

But there’s one other pernicious theme that some conservatives buy into: that Reagan didn’t really try very hard for the pro-life movement. This is a great injustice to his memory.

It is true that as California governor, Reagan signed one of the early permissive state-level abortion laws. He hesitated a long time over this decision, and quickly came to regret it. He explained in a letter to Henry Hyde in 1976:

The only circumstance under which I felt [abortion] could be justified was self-defense, a concept deeply rooted in our laws and traditions. If a mother’s life is endangered by her own unborn child, she has a right to protect her life. I do not believe, however, that abortion of a less-than-perfect child, or abortion for convenience sake or abortion because “a mistake” has been made can be justified.

The bill I signed followed the self-defense concept. As time was to prove, however, it contained one flaw. The self-defense concept also included a provision in cases where a mother’s mental health might be irreparably damaged. This required professional certification, but as we were to learn, it became subject to very liberal interpretation by some psychiatrists to justify abortions that should not have been made.

The claim that, as president, Reagan didn’t do enough to end abortion requires some perspective as well. Just what do people think Reagan should have done, order U.S. Marshals to close down abortion clinics? We forget now that the Reagan administration aroused the ire of the Left with two particular initiatives — the “Baby Doe rule” requiring hospitals to guarantee medical treatment to infants born handicapped (an effort to stop the rare and unspoken practice of de facto infanticide whereby hospitals allow deformed newborns to die), and the requirement that federally-funded family-planning clinics notify parents when they supplied contraceptives to minors, a rule the New York Times derided as the “squeal rule.” (It was later overturned by a federal judge.) And in its last year, the administration curtailed the use of federal funds for research using fetal tissue from aborted fetuses, a precursor to the stem-cell debates of more recent times. President Clinton reversed this policy in 1993.

Reagan might have pushed for the Human Life Amendment more vigorously (the Senate filibuster against it was led by Republican Bob Packwood), but it is hard to imagine a president being more direct about the subject than Reagan in his 1983 Human Life Review article (later turned into a book), “Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation.” Reagan’s political advisers were nervous about publishing such an article so close to his reelection campaign. Reagan replied: “I might not be reelected. We’re going with it now.” Reagan was the first sitting president to publish a book, and seldom has any president since Lincoln spoken so openly and forcefully about such a contentious moral issue. He was just as direct and unequivocal as Lincoln: “Make no mistake, abortion-on-demand is not a right granted by the Constitution.” Roe was an act of “raw judicial power,” Reagan said, comparable to Dred Scott: “This is not the first time our country has been divided by a Supreme Court decision that denied the value of certain human lives.” Some of Reagan’s language was bracing: “The abortionist who reassembles the arms and legs of a tiny baby to make sure all its parts have been torn from its mother’s body can hardly doubt whether it is a human being.” The media said such a controversial article by a sitting president was “rare” and “unusual.” If a Republican presidential candidate talked this way today, MSBNC might implode.

But what about his Supreme Court appointments? To be sure, Sandra Day O’Connor went bad on the issue, but she didn’t start out that way. In her first ruling on an abortion case, Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, O’Connor sided with Rehnquist and Byron White in a dissent that took aim at Roe. O’Connor criticized Roe for forcing courts “to pretend to act as science review boards.” Roe “is clearly on a collision course with itself. . . . [T]here is no justification in the law or logic for the trimester framework adopted in Roe.” And if Robert Bork had been confirmed in 1987, we can only imagine how different the world might look today.

As with other areas where the Reagan record is mixed, the lesson to be learned is that changing the course of the nation is a lot harder than just winning a landslide election. A wise person who served Reagan reflected shortly after leaving the White House in 1989, “No lesson is plainer than that the damage of decades cannot be repaired in any one administration.” That wise person? A fellow named Mitch Daniels.


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