Opposing Abortion: How Ronald Reagan, Henry Hyde, Others Became Pro-Life

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 6, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Opposing Abortion: How Ronald Reagan, Henry Hyde, Others Became Pro-Life

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by Fred Barnes
September 6, 2006

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard. This article is a condensed version of a speech he gave to the National Right to Life convention in Nashville in June.

HOW DO PEOPLE BECOME PRO-LIFERS? What turns people into passionate foes of abortion and related issues like euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research?

I’m not referring to those who supported the pro-life position because of their family upbringing or religious faith or because of a political requirement as, say, a Republican candidate in a red state. I’m talking about people who, as adults or mature teenagers, were either pro-abortion or basically indifferent to the issue. Then something changed their mind, prompting them to take up the anti-abortion cause.

Perhaps they began defending the pro-life position without realizing they’d flipped. In any case, what caused the change? What happened?

The answer can be found in the experiences of five people:

Ronald Reagan, Henry Hyde, Ramesh Ponnuru, Wesley Smith, and myself. And their stories, I think, are roughly representative of what a multitude of others went through as they came to embrace the cause of saving unborn children. The five experienced two things in common that should be easy to spot as we look at their five cases.

Let’s begin with Reagan. In his first year as California governor in 1967, the legislature passed a bill to legalize "therapeutic" abortions. It was an issue Reagan hadn’t thought much about and he was torn over whether to veto the measure. Many Republicans in legislature strongly urged him to sign the bill. And so did aides on his staff, including conservatives Ed Meese and Lyn Nofziger, who later followed Reagan to Washington. Reagan was assured it would result in only a handful of abortions.

His instinct was to veto the bill and the Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles urged him to follow that course. But he signed it into law. Reagan was disturbed by his decision, however, and continued to think long and hard about abortion. The bill, according to Lou Cannon in Governor Reagan, "permitted more legal abortions in California than occurred in any other state before the advent of Roe v. Wade." Reagan’s worst fear was realized.

By 1980, Reagan had changed his mind and become a firm opponent of abortion. He insisted on a pro-life plank in the Republican platform for the first time. In 1983, he published a passionate pro-life essay, Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation. It turned out that signing the abortion bill in 1967 was the only political mistake that Reagan ever admitted.

HENRY HYDE had been a member of the Illinois legislature for five years when he first was confronted by the abortion issue. It was the early 1970s–before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion-on-demand nationwide. Hyde was asked by another legislator to co-sponsor a bill easing the state’s ban on abortion. And he was receptive.

When he read the proposed legislation, however, his thinking changed. Hyde, too, had never given much thought to abortion. But suddenly he had to. And the result was he wound up rejecting, rather than sponsoring, the pro-abortion bill and leading the successful opposition to it on the floor of the Illinois assembly.

Hyde was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974 and quickly became a leading pro-life voice. In 1976, he won enactment of legislation barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Thirty years later, the Hyde Amendment is still the law of the land.

RAMESH PONNURU, a writer for National Review who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, remembers as a teenager "not wanting to be a pro-lifer." In America, he told me, "it’s just easier to be pro-choice. You’re running with the tide."

In 1991, people he knew in Kansas City joined the Summer of Mercy anti-abortion protest in Wichita. The demonstration drew enormous media attention and the protesters were reported to have created a tense standoff, a near-crisis. Ponnuru followed the event closely enough to know that the protesters were "about as tense as a church picnic." In fact, his friends who took part "were the kind of people who go to church picnics."

The effect of the Wichita demonstration on Ponnuru, miles away in Kansas City, was profound. That summer, he thought about the morality of abortion. And by the time he entered Princeton at the end of the summer, he was a full-blown pro-lifer. Since then, his opposition to abortion "has deepened every year." And this year, he published Party of Death, a compelling account of the Democratic party’s emergence as a strongly pro-abortion party.

AS A LAWYER and colleague of Ralph Nader, Wesley Smith was an unlikely prospect to become a pro-lifer. He got there in an unusual way that led him to become America’s leading critic of euthanasia, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research.

A little over a decade ago, a friend of Smith, a 76-year-woman named Virginia, committed suicide. She had often talked about killing herself, telling Smith and other friends how painless, gentle even, it would be. They had tried to talk her out of it, but to no avail.

After her death, Smith went to her home in California and found stacks of literature by advocates of euthanasia, particularly the Hemlock Society. And he recognized some of things Virginia had said in the literature, such as tales of people supposedly enjoying death. Smith was appalled and it altered his thinking and his career.

Soon he was devoting more and more time to writing and speaking against euthanasia–until it became a crusade and his full-time work. Nader asked him at one point why he was "doing so much on euthanasia." Smith explained the issue to him. This led to a controversial statement by Nader during his presidential campaign in 2000. While in Oregon, he denounced the state’s assisted suicide law as "Oregon’s shame."

FINALLY, THERE’S MY OWN EXPERIENCE. For years, I rarely gave abortion a passing thought. That an unborn child was killed often as a matter of convenience–well, I just never thought about that. As a reporter for the Evening Star newspaper in Washington in 1973 covering the Roe v. Wade ruling, I considered the issue a legal matter, not a moral one.

The rise of the anti-abortion movement in the late 1970s and Reagan’s stand on abortion caught my eye, but only as political matters. Then my wife Barbara’s obstetrician recommended she have amniocentesis when she was pregnant with our third child. This involves injecting a needle into the womb to remove fluid so the unborn child can be examined for problems or defects.

We’d heard amniocentesis referred to as a "search and destroy mission" that often led to abortion in the case of a child with birth defects or Down’s Syndrome. This caused us to think about what we would do in such a case–really to think seriously about abortion for the first time. As it happened, our child was fine. But as we left the doctor’s office, my wife and I agreed she’d never do amniocentesis again. And she didn’t when she became pregnant again three years later. Without recognizing it immediately, we had become pro-lifers.

So think for a moment about these five experiences: Reagan’s deciding on signing an abortion bill, Hyde’s mulling whether to co-sponsor a pro-abortion measure, Ponnuru’s watching as the Summer of Mercy unfold, Smith’s reading pro-euthanasia tracts as his dead friend’s home, and our–my wife and I–adverse reaction to amniocentesis. One common thread is obvious. All of us, because of the circumstances we found ourselves in, were forced to think about the taking of a life and what that means in both practical and moral terms. Most people avoid thinking about troubling moral issues like abortion or euthanasia. We couldn’t.

And the other common thread is that something happened to make us choose life and choose it firmly and reject death. I think it was our conscience that intervened or, if you prefer, the basic human instinct that favors life over death. Or it you are a Christian, as I am, it was God.

Now I’m sure there are many exceptions to our experience. Not everyone who contemplates abortion or euthanasia is bound to take the intellectual path that five of us–six, including my wife–did on the way to becoming pro-lifers. But I suspect there are many more than like us than not. And many more to come.