In recent days, the Biden administration has taken unprecedented steps as it grows evermore radical in the post-Roe era. The FBI, under Attorney General Merrick Garland, conducted a series of raids on the homes of peaceful pro-life activists, and the White House announced its support for forcing doctors to perform abortions despite their medical and ethical objections.
And as the White House promotes publicly funded abortion with no restrictions until birth, the GOP has an unprecedented opportunity to promote a culture that truly values both mother and baby, building upon a half-century of consistent advocacy for federal action.
The Supreme Court did not make this determination in Dobbs, of course. But at the same time, it did not announce that the issue of abortion was merely a matter for resolution by state legislative bodies. In fact, it made clear that the issue belonged to the legislative branches, representatives of the people in general, at both the federal and state levels. That is where the issue resided, with states indeed taking the lead before Roe v. Wade upended the constitutional order and nationalized the issue.
In 1972 debates were taking place nationwide, and as the decade began, two out of three state referenda (Michigan and North Dakota) rejected legal abortion, and the liberal New York Legislature voted to repeal its two-year-old law allowing abortion to 24 weeks. Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller vetoed that repeal. Seven years later, then-Gov. Hugh Carey, a Democrat, likewise vetoed pro-life legislation, a decision he later came to publicly regret in a series of heartfelt speeches.
This history is easily forgotten, but it shows how the polarizing nature of abortion reshaped the political parties after 1973 and drove many Democrats away from the party. For Republicans, after the Rockefeller wing of the party fizzled out, the trend toward embracing a national solution was nearly as immediate as it was thoroughgoing.
The Republican platform in 1976, when Ronald Reagan’s leading role in the party crystallized, acknowledged various views within the GOP before asserting, “The Republican Party favors a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion and supports the efforts of those who seek enactment of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.” Reagan triumphed over Jimmy Carter in 1980 with a deepened commitment to the right to life, born of his own regret over signing a liberal bill in California in 1967.
In remarks at the centennial meeting of the Knights of Columbus in 1982, Reagan said, “I, also, strongly believe, as you have been told, that the protection of innocent life is and has always been a legitimate, indeed, the first duty of government. And, believing that, I favor human life. And I believe in the human life legislation. The Senate now has three proposals on this matter from Sens. Hatch, Helms, and Hatfield. The national tragedy of abortion on demand must end. I’m urging the Senate to give these proposals the speedy consideration they deserve.”
Similar remarks were made by successive Republican presidents, from George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush to Donald Trump. One searches in vain for any reference to the abortion issue being merely a state-level preoccupation. Time swiftly forgets how Bob Dole sought, unsuccessfully, to dilute the GOP platform on abortion to acknowledge a “big tent” on the issue, how John McCain flirted at length with the selection of the pro-choice Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, and how Mitt Romney performed a dizzying array of reversals on the issue throughout his career.
Of course, the latter three presidential candidates have something else in common: They were not elected.
Ultimately, the question about abortion centers on what the developing child in the womb is. If it is a human being with infinite value, a member of the human family, then the government is obliged to protect the child as such and to find effective ways to do so by recognizing his or her legal status and providing supportive services. If the child is merely an object, a mass of tissue, or a non-entity, then the federal government may just as well leave it to the states whether it is protected or destined for the incinerator. History, however, is clear about the danger to all of us emanating from such a view.
The GOP has said for decades it understood the humanity of the unborn. Now, when the court has freed legislators to follow through on their words, is no time to make those words ring hollow.