Newly released details from her personal papers reveal that former first lady Barbara Bush laid out her thoughts on abortion in the 1980s, while her husband was running for president for the first time. She did not release these personal musings for publication during her life, nor share them in any of her many press interviews.
These opinions on abortion came to light when Susan Page was given permission to read through Bush’s private papers as Page researched a biography. Bush’s diaries and papers were donated to the presidential library named after her husband, meant to be held in reserve and privacy until 35 years after her death.
Page was allowed to make notes of what she read, but not photograph the content. She was to meet with Bush again to discuss her research in these archives, but Bush fell and later died before they could.
Bush’s thoughts on abortion centered on whether unborn babies have souls: “When does the soul enter the body is the #1 question. Not when does life begin, as life begins in a flower or an animal with the first cell. So the question is does the life begin (soul entering the body) at conception or at the moment the first breath is taken? If the answer to that question is at conception, then abortion is murder. If the answer to that question is the moment the first breath is taken, then abortion is not murder.”
Christianity Definitely Teaches that Souls Exist Before Birth
The question of when the soul enters the body is an important one to Christians and faithful believers of many other religions. Parents, grandparents, and other people close by when a baby has died in stillbirth or miscarriage are often deeply concerned about this when they ask if their dear baby is in Heaven. In Bush’s musings on whether abortion is murder, she reportedly did not consider these children, their fate, nor the distress the idea of unborn babies being soulless would cause families.
The Bible isn’t silent on this point, though. Rather, through the ages, people have had the hope of salvation and an eternal reunion because of the words written about the faith of the unborn. In a long work about unborn children and those who pass away before they are able to be baptized, the famous theologian Martin Luther said: “[O]ne must leave such situations to God and take comfort in the thought that he surely has heard our unspoken yearning and done all things better than we could have asked.”
The Bible’s Luke 1 records the virgin Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant then with the prophet John. In faith, the unborn John leaps in his mother’s womb at meeting his also unborn Lord: “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
The Catholic Church points to the faith of the preborn John the Baptist in “Evangelium Vitae,” a Catholic discourse on the importance of life at all stages, and how children before birth can have saving faith: “the value of the person from the moment of conception is celebrated in the meeting between the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth, and between the two children whom they are carrying in the womb. It is precisely the children who reveal the advent of the Messianic age: in their meeting, the redemptive power of the presence of the Son of God among men first becomes operative.”
Neither Mary, the mother of Jesus, nor Elizabeth believed that they were bearing soulless babies, waiting to be born to become fully human. These babies were clearly ensouled and conscious beings while still within their mothers’ wombs.
The Old Testament also addresses God’s plan for the unborn in Psalm 139: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
Even clearer is Psalm 22: “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”
Bush Is Welcome to Muse, But She Didn’t Hit on the Truth
It is clear that Barbara Bush formed her feelings about abortion with little knowledge about what the Bible says about the soul. Very likely, personal tragedy also played a role. The Bushes tragically lost a three-year-old daughter to cancer, and that loss weighed into her writing on this subject.
Of this loss, Bush wrote: “Judging from both the birth and death of Robin Bush, I have decided that that almost religious experience, that thin line between birth, the first breath that she took, was when the soul, the spirit, that special thing that separates man or woman from animals + plants entered her little body. I was conscious at her birth and I was with her at her death. (As was G.B.) An even stronger impression remains with me of that moment, 27 years ago [when she died]. Of course, extreme grief, but that has softened. I vividly remember that split second, that thin line between breathing and not breathing, the complete knowledge that her soul had left and only the body remained.”
There is grief here that as a mother myself I want to respect and not minimize, but also as a mother I have to note that each of my children has been just as vibrantly alive, as different from a plant or an animal, before they were born as after. The moments before a baby is born when a mother can feel them moving, where it’s clear that they’re responding to touch, to sound, to spicy food or too much caffeine, makes it very difficult for me to understand not seeing them as people.
Each of my children had clear and different personalities before they were born, being calmer or more restless, more active or sleepy, and those traits follow them as children and teens now. The moment they were born didn’t change them into people—they were people already. So this experience is available to mothers of children, even those who don’t believe in Christianity like many in the Bush family profess to have.
Bush also thought the poor should have access to abortion: “What do I feel about abortion? Having decided that the first breath is when the soul enters the body, I believe in Federally funded abortion. Why should the rich be allowed to afford abortions and the poor not?”
Page notes that Bush’s feelings include a limit on abortions at 12 weeks, but that she didn’t feel this was a “presidential issue” and thought “Abortion is personal, between mother fathers and Dr.”
In language that would now be very anti-feminist, Bush also notes her possible solution: “Education is the answer. I believe that we must give people goals in life for them to work for—Teach them the price you must pay for being promiscuous.” Finally, she also included this subject, “Needs lots more thought.” Whether she thought more about this later and wrote those thoughts down, we will have to wait to learn for the rest of her papers to become public, in 2053.
Bush’s thoughts on this were likely deeply tied to the difficult and painful experience of losing a child. However, her thoughts in no way mirror Christian teaching or the experience of many mothers with their unborn children’s personalities.
The unborn hear, they are formed and planned by God, and can have saving faith. All of this means they have souls. Since it’s the very lack of soul that Bush hinged her conclusion on, her ideas form a flawed and misguided apologetic for abortion.