The date was November 11, 1980, one week after then former California Governor Ronald Wilson Reagan's defeat of then President James Earl Carter, Jr., for the presidency. Just thirteen days shy of my twenty-ninth birthday, I was all agog with enthusiasm over the prospect of reversing Roe v. Wade by means of a no-exceptions amendment to the United States Constitution. After all, a "pro-life" Republican had been elected to the presidency. Oh, he supported some abortions, but that didn't mean anything to me at the time. I reasoned that Reagan had changed his stance from pro-abortion to "pro-life." Surely, he would be convinced to become totally pro-life by the time he was sworn into office on January 20, 1981. Moreover, Republicans had captured control of the United States Senate on November 4, 1980, the first time that the Grand Old Party had a majority in either house of the United States Congress since the end of the 83rd Congress in December of 1954. "Ah," I said to a priest in the rectory of Saint Dominic's Church in Oyster Bay, New York, that November 11, 1980, "I think we've finally turned a corner on abortion."
My youthful enthusiasm and misplaced trust in Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party were engendered by several things. First, I had not yet studied the great social encyclical letters of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. Thus, I labored under the misapprehension that the American founding was compatible with the Faith, and that all we need to "fix" things in our nation was to have the right political party in power to propose the right amendments and the right laws to once again subordinate ourselves to the binding precepts of the Divine positive law and natural law. I did not realize then that a nation founded on a specific rejection of the Social Kingship of Our Lord and the authority of the true Church to direct men in the pursuit of authentic justice founded in truth was destined to demonstrate the inherent degeneracy of its founding principles over time. This led me to believe, quite mistakenly, that the election of 1980 would actually mean something for the babies.
The second factor that led me to place an unwarranted trust in electoral politics and the promise of the incoming Reagan administration was my lack of understanding that a person who makes exceptions to the sanctity of innocent human life is unlikely, barring some miracle of grace, to make the restoration of legal protection for all unborn children without any exception whatsoever a priority in his public life. "Reagan is educable," I told myself and others. "He will change." As we know, however, he did not.
Pro-lifers were betrayed by President Ronald Reagan early in his first term. Although many of us thought that the retirement of United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart, who had been appointed to the Court by President Dwight David Eisenhower, would result in his replacement by a solid pro-life jurist. Stewart had been one of the seven justices who voted in the majority in the case of Roe v. Wade. Eager, though, to curry favor with women who would never vote for him, President Reagan took the advice of his wife Nancy and adviser Michael Deaver, nominating Sandra Day O'Connor to replace Stewart. This was a singular betrayal of the cause of the sanctity of innocent human life in the womb. It opened my eyes and started me on the process of reassessing the uncritical, unthinking enthusiasm I had for the Reagan administration.
Sandra Day O'Connor had a solidly pro-abortion voting record while she was the majority leader of the Arizona State Senate. This simple fact was pointed out by both Judie Brown of the American Life League and Howard Phillips of the Conservative Caucus Foundation in testimony they gave before the Senate Judiciary Committee. None of the allegedly pro-life senators, who were themselves eager to curry favor with women voters who would never vote for them, wanted to hear what Mrs. Brown and Mr. Phillips had to say. The fact that Sandra Day O'Connor was totally pro-abortion meant nothing to these senators. That should have been a clear signal to all pro-lifers of the futility of major party politics in the United States of America. It was for me. Sadly, though, it wasn't for a lot of well-meaning people, who kept holding out hope against hope that "things" would change.
Well, "things" did not change. They got worse. Making one of their typically bad policy decisions, the Catholic bishops of the United States, acting in concert with the National Right to Life Committee, endorsed the Hatch Amendment in the early 1980s. The Hatch Amendment, named for Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, was tragically flawed. It would have reversed Roe v. Wade, but, importantly, it would have said that the "right:" to permit or restrict or prohibit abortion was a matter to be determined by state legislatures. Thus, the word "abortion" would have appeared for the first time in the United States Constitution by means of an amendment that admitted state legislatures had the sole right to permit or prohibit it. The Hatch Amendment was based on the false premise that abortion was a matter of states' rights, ignoring the truth of the natural law that no human institution has any authority to permit those things that are of their nature wrong. Cicero noted this in his book, The Republic, stating that the natural law cannot be repealed by a vote of either the Senate or of the people.
The debate over the Hatch Amendment polarized the pro-life community. Solid no-exceptions pro-lifers opposed it. As is the case today, such no-exceptions pro-lifers, who sought a no-exceptions amendment to the United States Constitution (termed by Nellie Gray of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund as the "Paramount Human Life Amendment), were denounced by the "pragmatists" and the "incrementalists" as being unrealistic and obstructionist, people who were demanding perfection in an imperfect world. It is interesting to note that the cast of characters on the side of the pragmatists and incrementalists has changed a little bit over the past two decades; their consistent denunciation of anyone who dares to oppose what they believe is their "received wisdom" has not changed one bit at all.
I expressed my dissatisfaction about the approach of the Reagan administration to a friend of mine in early 1982. He said, "They'll [meaning Congress] give him anything he wants if he gets the economy turned around. I disagreed, saying, "To stress the economy over the stopping of the shedding of the blood of the babies demonstrates a misplaced sense of priorities. God will never permit us to have long-term, sustained economic growth over the course of decades while we slaughter the innocent unborn." The man, who was dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite, did not want to hear any of it. He believed in Reagan and he believed in incrementalism. That is where he had placed his hope.
The Hatch Amendment failed in Congress. Reagan and his people threw up their hands, saying, in effect, that they had done all they could do. Reagan talked the pro-life line at the March for Life each year and in his annual State of the Union address before Congress. Apart, though, from some Executive Orders that were reversed on January 22, 1993, by several strokes of a pen by President William Jefferson Clinton, little was done in the 1980s as child-killing was further and further institutionalized in American life. As the late John Cardinal O'Connor told me in a private meeting with him when I was running for Lieutenant Governor of New York on the Right to Life Party line in 1986, "Tom, if the President had pushed as hard for life as he has for aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, we might have gotten somewhere."
Things went downhill fast in the 1980s. President George Herbert Walker Bush, who said after his defeat by Clinton in 1992 that the Republican Party should have abandoned its no-exceptions pro-life platform plank (which was nothing other than rhetoric to keep pro-lifers on the Republican reservation), winked as his handpicked Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Lee Atwater, sought to distance the party from its "pro-life" rhetoric. It was Atwater who in 1989 devised the "Big Tent" slogan, stating that the Republican Party should be broad enough to include all different "opinions" about abortion. Curiously, no one was saying that the Republican Party should have a "Big Tent" to include David Duke. Racists and anti-Semites were not, quite rightly, welcome in the Big Tent. However, those who supported the slicing and dicing of little children in their mothers' wombs were more than welcomed in the Grand Old Party. This should have demonstrated to pro-life Americans the simple truth that careerist Republicans believed the life issue was a losing issue, that it should be taken off of the radar screen of American electoral politics once and for all. The "Big Tent" philosophy was embraced by Pat Robertson and his hand-picked head of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed. "A political party is not a Church," Robertson and Reed said over and over again during the Bush I administraiton.
Although President George Herbert Walker Bush did give us Clarence Thomas, who has turned out to be the most pro-life justice on the United States Supreme Court, his first nominee for the high court was David Souter, in 1990. As had been the case with Sandra Day O'Connor nine years earlier, "pro-life" Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee did not care when Howard Phillips presented incontrovertible evidence that Souter had voted to permit so-called "elective" abortions in a hospital on whose board of trustees he served. Souter had the blood of the innocent dripping on his hands. That did not matter to Republicans in the Senate whatsoever. Souter got a free pass, proving himself to be one of the most liberal justices on the Court in the past twelve years.
Partisans of President George Herbert Walker Bush, such as the man who succeeded Lee Atwater as Chairman of the Republican National Committee following Atwater's death, Richard Bond, blamed Bush's defeat on the pro-life plank in the Republican party platform, to say nothing of the "intolerant" speech given by Patrick Joseph Buchanan at the party's national nominating convention in Houston, Texas, in 1992. Thus, completely pro-abortion candidates were embraced by the Republican Party around the nation (Christine Todd Whitman for Governor of New Jersey in 1993; Rudolph Giuliani for Mayor of the City of New York in 1993; Richard Riordan for Mayor of the City of Los Angeles in 1994; George Pataki for Governor of the State of New York in 1994; Tom Ridge for Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1994; Susan Collins for U.S. Senator from Maine in 1996; Olympia Snowe for U.S. Senator from Maine in 1994; Susan Molinari and Rick Lazio for seats in the House of Representatives in the 1990s, and on and on and on [Editor's Note: All these listed pro-abort Republican politicians claim to be Catholic, making it even more outrageous]).
These completely pro-abortion Republican candidates were enabled at almost every turn by the National Right to Life Committee and its state affiliates. Candidates of conscience were condemned as being tools of the pro-aborts to keep "good" Republicans out of office. Those attempting to keep the life issue alive in the context of electoral politics were denounced as unrealistic dreamers who did not live in the real world and who did not want to accept the imperfections of American party politics.
As all of this was going on within the Republican Party, Republican Senators enabled Bill Clinton's anti-life policies at almost every turn between in 1993 and 1994. Apart from voting for the chemical abortion of babies by means of "family planning programs" (something that was in force during the Reagan and Bush I years), all but three Republican Senators (Bob Smith, Jesse Helms, Don Nickles) voted to confirm the notorious pro-abort, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to the United States Supreme Court in 1993. Some people told me at the time that Republicans had to vote for Ginsburg lest they be accused of being opposed to a Jewish woman! Never mind babies. Never mind truth. No, human respect and political expediency mattered more than anything else. It came as no surprise, therefore, that all but eight Republican Senators voted to confirm the pro-abortion Stephen Breyer in 1994. Almost all of Clinton's 180 pro-abortion nominees to the Federal judiciary between 1993 and 1996 were confirmed by so-called "pro-life" Republican Senators.
Furthermore, then Senate Minority Leader Robert Joseph Dole told C-SPAN in January of 1993 that he proudly supported Clinton's Executive Order to permit fetal tissue experimentation, something that he voted to support on the floor of the Senate one month later (along with the "pro-life" junior Senator from New York, Alfonse M. D'Amato). The so-called Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Bill (FACE) passed with the overwhelming support of allegedly "pro-life" Republicans in both houses of Congress in 1994. And Republicans did nothing to try to reverse Clinton's Executive Order authorize the United States Food and Drug Administration to conduct tests on the human pesticide, RU-486. Indeed, Republicans were silent in 1995, when they actually controlled both houses of Congress, as a report in The New York Times indicated that women were getting pregnant deliberately in order to participate in the tests of the French abortion pill.
Sadly, most pro-life Americans have very short and selective memories, placing their trust repeatedly in career politicians who fail the cause of the babies over and over and over again. Thus, there was great enthusiasm in 1994 when Republicans captured control of both houses of the United States Congress simultaneously for the first time since the election of 1952. That enthusiasm, again, was misplaced. Then Representative Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in January of 1995, and Bob Dole, who once again became Senate Majority Leader that same month, had no intention of moving the agenda of the sanctity of innocent human life. Indeed, they desired to play politics with the issue of life in order to energize the pro-life political base for the 1996 elections. The principal means by which they did this was by emphasizing the issue of partial-birth abortions. Let me explain.
It is sometimes the case that the enemies of life and of truth make true statements. For example, Vladimir Lenin was not wrong when he said that "the capitalists will sell us the rope we will use to hang them." That is, in their shortsighted desire to make money, capitalists usually ignore the fact that selling goods to potential enemies might wind up in those goods being used against them in war. In like manner, you see, the pro-aborts were not wrong in 1995 when they asserted that the issue of partial-birth abortions was being used for the political advantage of Republicans. It was. Where the pro-aborts were absolutely wrong, however, was in asserting that Republicans were trying to use the issue of partial-birth abortions as a "wedge issue" so as to limit all abortions. Most of the Republicans involved in the effort to conditionally ban partial-birth abortions believed in 1995 and 1996 that that effort would be the end of the abortion issue in electoral politics forever. As such a broad consensus had developed in the nation in opposition to this form of child-killing, careerists could claim that they had done all they could do in the context of the realities of "popular culture." The only thing we could do after that, many believed at the time, was simply to persuade women not to have abortions, that the culture "was not ready" for a total ban on all abortions without exception, something that the culture will never be "ready for" without leadership in the pulpit and courage from those who run for and serve in public office.
The procedure referred to as partial-birth abortion was devised by a baby-killer in 1992 to be a less invasive way to a mother of killing a child in the later stages of pregnancy. Technically called dilatation and extraction, partial-birth abortion was meant to be a replacement for the child-killing procedure known as dilatation and evacuation, a gruesome process by which a child is carved up within his mother's birth canal. The "advantage" of partial-birth abortion for a baby-killer is that its breach of the baby in the birth canal permits him to be partially delivered so that the baby-killer can reach in to pierce the baby's skull with scissors without threatening to perforate the mother's birth canal, something that happens all the time in the dilatation and evacuation method of child-killing.
It is important to review (once again) these horrible, gruesome facts. Why? For this simple reason: even if a complete and total no-exceptions ban on all partial-birth abortions were to be enacted by Congress and sustained eventually by the United States Supreme Court, it would likely not save one baby as the other procedures to kill a baby in the later stages of pregnancy would remain perfectly legal (dilatation and evacuation, hysterotomy, saline solution abortions). While the debate over partial-birth abortions did help to illustrate the particular brutality of one form of child-killing, it also misled even a lot of well-meaning pro-lifers into thinking that partial-birth abortion was more of a crime morally than methods of baby-killing used in the earlier stages of pregnancy. Child-killing is child-killing. Suction abortions are just as heinous morally as partial-birth abortions. Many people, however, have lost sight of this fact.
The emphasis on conditionally stopping partial-birth abortions reduced the definition of the term "pro-life" to only being conditionally opposed to one form of child-killing in the later stages of pregnancy. As Judie Brown of the American Life League has noted so frequently, this has resulted in the "dumbing down" of the term "pro-life." Indeed, as has been demonstrated from 1996 to this day, even those who are absolutely committed to the horrific and unjust decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Roe v. Wade are considered by the National Right to Life Committee and by Priests for Life as being legitimately "pro-life" as long as they express some limited opposition to partial-birth abortions. Thus, Bob Dole, who was enabled by those two organizations and the Christian Coalition, only spoke about partial-birth abortions in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996-and only spoke about that during the general election that year before safe Catholic audiences. He mumbled the phrase "partial birth" once as a throw away line in one of the debates he had with President Bill Clinton, careful not to use the word "abortion" after the words "partial birth."
We had a chance in 1996 to have had a Republican nominee for the presidency who would have kept the issue alive in the general election. Alas, that candidate, Patrick Joseph Buchanan, was deemed to have been "unelectable" by the likes of Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed and the leaders of the National Right to Life Committee and Father Frank Pavone and his Priests for Life. This showed just how bad the practical political judgments of the incrementalists and self-styled pragmatists really was at the time. For anyone who knew anything about the history of American electoral politics knew that Robert Joseph Dole, apart from his support of anti-life programs and policies, was an inarticulate man (who had lost the sole Vice Presidential debate in 1976 to then Senator Walter Mondale, of all people) who would be no match for Clinton.
Undaunted by their bad judgment in 1996, though, the incrementalists and pragmatists put their trust in the Republican Party once more in 2000, anointing Governor George W. Bush of Texas as their next candidate, once again eschewing, if not condemning in the harshest terms, Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes they sought the Repubilcan presidential nomination in 1999 prior to Buchanan's abandonment of that quest to focus on obtaining the Reform Party nomination. No, Bush, was deemed to be the "electable" pro-life candidate, even though he made the seemingly obligatory exceptions to the sanctity of life in the cases of rape, incest, and alleged threats to the life of a mother-and even though he said repeatedly that abortion was matter of "opinion" about which people of good will could legitimately disagree. As I noted in a column before the November 5 elections, Bush won the presidency because he won more popular votes in Florida than had Albert Arnold Gore on November 7, 2000. Bush, who lost the national popular vote by more than three million votes, won Florida because 95,000 committed leftists voted for Ralph Nader, knowing full well that that might hurt their fellow leftist, Gore. Those leftists believed in their leftism more than Catholics believed in their Catholicism.
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Thomas A. Droleskey, Ph.D.
Note: [bold, brackets and italicized words used for emphasis]
For past columns in The DAILY CATHOLIC by Dr. Droleskey, see Archives