Americans have notoriously short memories. For most Republicans the history of abortion extends back no further than the Supreme Court’s 1973 judgment in Roe v. Wade that struck down state laws banning the practice. A better sense of where we came from might help us understand where we are and why we have been unable to reach a legislative compromise on this issue.
Abortion has been practiced for millennia and we have literary evidence of it going back to ancient Egypt and India. Classical doctors and philosophers wrote about abortion and the early Christian Church wrestled with the practice. It has been variously banned, approved, encouraged and curbed at different times and among different cultures.
The Bible does not mention abortion at all, in spite of the Old Testament’s explicit regulation of almost every imaginable activity. However, among early Jewish and Christian writers there was a general consensus against abortion after “quickening” had occurred. Quickening refers to the first time the mother feels the fetus move or kick, and was often assumed to be the moment at which the soul entered the body.
Across most of America in the early twentieth century abortion was illegal after quickening, but in the early ‘60s many states, including some that may seem surprising like Mississippi and South Carolina, began to loosen their laws on the subject. The political divide over abortion was not as clear at the time. In 1967, Ronald Reagan as Governor of California signed into law one of the country’s most liberal abortion laws. Barry Goldwater, the Republican Party’s candidate for President in 1964 and the godfather of the modern conservative movement was passionately pro-choice. Republicans in New York legalized abortion in that state.
Many Democrats from staunchly Catholic areas were opposed to abortion rights while many of its supporters were Western, Protestant Republicans. Early opposition to the expansion of abortion rights came almost exclusively from Catholic organizations. Catholics had well organized political groups which had been active in the long, failed, post-war battle to preserve bans on contraceptives. When the Supreme Court struck down most states’ abortion laws in 1973, they were ready. The National Right to Life Committee was formed within months of the Roe v. Wade decision.
Protestant groups were slow to warm to the pro-life movement. Mainline denominations remain mostly pro-choice to this day. Even the Southern Baptist Church advocated for legal abortion in some circumstances as late as the mid-70’s. It was the rise of fundamentalism among Protestants and an opportunistic alliance in 1980 between the Reagan campaign and the Moral Majority that turned abortion into a political issue of broad national interest.
During his Presidency, Reagan spoke of abortion often and did almost nothing about it. He went as far as to address major pro-life organizations remotely by phone or video in order to avoid being photographed standing by during their harangues.
Both major political parties took time to develop their stances on abortion rights. There was no mention of abortion rights in either party’s platforms prior to Roe v. Wade. This was a time when abortion laws were regularly being liberalized at the state level. In 1976 the Democratic Party introduced a very weak statement opposing efforts to reverse Roe v. Wade. The same year the Republicans included a similarly cautious support for overturning Roe, in their national platform while also describing that as a “polar position.”
The Democrats fairly quickly arrived at the stance that abortion should be, in the words of the 2000 platform, safe, legal, and rare. Platforms in 1984 and 1988 don’t even mention the word “abortion.”
The Republican platform was a constant battleground on this issue into the nineties. Blanket opposition to abortion was controversial in the Party as late as 1992. However, the 1994 elections brought into positions of authority in the Party a phalanx of new Republicans far more influenced by religious fundamentalism than by the classic libertarian/business alliance in power since the Goldwater Era.
Since that time the Party’s position on abortion has hardened. Merely banning abortion except in cases of rape and incest is ‘so last election.’ The Republican Party is exploring the frontiers of extreme reproductive policy. In 2008, the GOP platform extended its definition of abortion by recommending constitutional protection not just for an “unborn child” as the previous platform stated, but for “all human life”; seeking to accommodate those who equate the disposal of any living thing containing human DNA (like frozen embryos) to murder.
Contrast that stance with Reagan’s 1980 Republican Party Platform which had one small paragraph expressing abortion opposition and which recognized the deep, conflicting opinions on the practice. Say goodbye to the days of The Gipper. The 2008 platform uses the word “abortion” twelve times. Abortion, a side issue adopted to court a fringe constituency in the 1980 election has swallowed Republican Party politics. It has mutated into a multi-million dollar political industry on both sides of the aisle, perhaps explaining why, despite the noise, there has been no meaningful legislation on the issue in almost forty years.
Is it possible to pass legislation that would limit abortion on demand, reduce the frequency of abortions, and also square with the requirements of Roe v. Wade? Certainly, but there is little interest in the political arena in finding such a compromise. It would extinguish one of the most lucrative political sideshows in our nation’s history. No one would benefit except the public.