Revisionist History: Misrepresenting President Ronald Reagan’s Abortion Record

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 11, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Conservative voters long for another Ronald Reagan as president and his deeply felt pro-life views are still alluring to pro-life people long after his administration. Pro-life advocates always felt Reagan was “one of us” and understood their passion to protect unborn children — but some revisionist historians would like nothing more than to confuse the record.

By misrepresenting President Reagan’s abortion record, these historians can confuse and divide the grassroots pro-life community and make it more difficult to rally around future presidential candidate.

Florida State University associate professor of history Michael Creswell is the latest to engage in the practice.

In a Tuesday editorial, Creswell accuses pro-life advocates of “remembering Reagan’s record selectively” and claimed “Reagan often embraced policies sharply at odds with conservative philosophy.”

“Almost all conservatives oppose abortion,” Creswell writes. “But in 1967, only four months into his first term as governor of California, Reagan signed into law a bill that resulted in millions of abortions due to a provision in the bill allowing abortions for the well-being of the mother.”

“Times have changed. Few of today’s conservatives would support a politician who signed a similar bill,” he adds. “Among the 10 major Republicans who have run for president this year, only Rudolph Giuliani supported abortion rights.”

Creswell conveniently tells just half of the story. And if his recounting of the history of Reagan’s abortion actions ended there, pro-life advocates would have reason to be concerned.

But the facts go well beyond Creswell’s revisionist history.

In the 2005 book “Essential Ronald Reagan,” writer Lee Edwards points out that Reagan felt duped into signing the measure because his legal advisors told him it would leave the vast majority of abortions illegal.

He writes that Reagan came to “deeply” regret signing the bill.

In a period before Roe v. Wade, Reagan didn’t have the advantage of knowing that abortion advocates and courts would misuse the health exception in the bill to allow virtually all abortions to become legal. That wasn’t Reagan’s intent at all, despite Creswell’s presentation of Reagan as an abortion advocate whom pro-life voters would distrust.

Click here to sign up for pro-life news alerts from

Reagan’s most able biographer, Lou Cannon, writes that Reagan have never really grappled with the issue of abortion, but that he experienced regret as soon as 1968 over signing the bill.

Reagan said that “those were awful weeks” when he realized the fallout from the legislation and that he would never have signed the bill if he had “been a more experienced governor.”

As Edwards points out and Creswell leaves out, “When legislators in 1970 proposed new liberalizations in the abortion law, Reagan successfully opposed them.”

Then Governor Reagan eventually wrote a constituent a letter making a now common pro-life argument.

“Those who summarily advocate a blanket population control [Reagan’s emphasis] should think carefully. Who might they be doing away? Another Lincoln or Bethoven, an Einstein or Edison? Who shall play God?” Reagan wrote.

As a 1976 presidential candidate, he said of his signing the California abortion bill, “I wouldn’t make the same mistake again” and added that he did “more soul searching and studying on the subject than anything else in my eight years” as governor.

By 1980, when he won his first term, Reagan advocated a solid pro-life position that abortion was wrong in every instance except very rare occasions when it might be necessary to save the mother’s life.

I presented this information to Mr. Creswell in an email and the good professor responded by saying he didn’t have room in his article to present the facts. Yet, a short paragraph would have disabused the false impression he left with his readers that Reagan backed abortion or that he doesn’t enjoy enormous popularity with the majority of Americans who are pro-life.

Creswell also claimed Reagan did nothing to advance the pro-life cause as president.

“He also provided much rhetorical red meat to the anti-abortion activists, but that was about all,” the FSU professor contended in his reply to me.

Never mind that Reagan wrote a seminal book on abortion — “Abortion and the Conscience of Nation.” For a sitting president to pen a tome about such a controversial subject is indeed a rarity and shows the great lengths to which Reagan both regretted signing the California abortion bill and desired to articulate a clear and unmistakable pro-life position.

Moreover, Reagan’s putting the Mexico City Policy during his presidency to cut off taxpayer-funding of groups that promoted and performed abortions in other nations has saved literally millions of lives in the decades since.

As conservative columnist Warner Tood Huston has written, “In light of the evidence it cannot be said that Reagan was ever an ‘adamant’ pro-abortion supporter.”

For someone to misrepresent Reagan’s staunch pro-life views, “is a disgraceful attempt to co-opt the reputation of the most famous and successful politician of his age and an icon of the conservative movement.”

If historians are so readily willing to misrepresent the history of presidents on abortion, one wonders how quickly they will cover up the radical pro-abortions views of the eventual Democratic nominee in this year’s contest.