Commentary: The narrow definition of 'pro-life' fuels disregard for lives during covid-19

Summary: When antiabortion politicians invoke a right to life in condemning abortion but then show little hesitation about sacrificing people's lives, it raises the question: Is the GOP the party of life, or just the sworn enemy of Roe's right to choose?


Something strange is going on with Republicans.

Take Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. He has rock-solid antiabortion bona fides โ€” last year when Texas was on the verge of defunding Planned Parenthood, he tweeted: "In Texas, we respect the sanctity of life." Yet last week, urging his state to reopen after being shut down because of a coronavirus stay-at-home order, he said: "There are more important things than living."

Or consider Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. In 2016, he praised the antiabortion March for Life for continuing despite bad weather because of how important it was for people to show that "all Americans have the right to life." But a month ago, Johnson said that it was unwise to shutter the economy when only "between 1 and 3.4 percent of the population" who get coronavirus will die.

The dichotomy is striking. Even as some Republicans try to ban abortions during the pandemic, they are calling in increasing numbers for the sacrifice of lives to kick-start the economy. This seeming contradiction has long-standing historical roots. Mutual convenience and the need to forge a lasting political alliance in the 1980s led the antiabortion movement and the GOP to settle on an exceedingly narrow definition of "pro-life" โ€” one focused almost entirely on abortion.


The marriage between the GOP and the antiabortion movement might have been hard to see coming. After all, in the 1960s and 1970s, "pro-lifers" were politically diverse. The movement included dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservatives and self-described liberals who favored broad welfare protections for pregnant women, young mothers and children.

The GOP didn't seem especially welcoming to many of these activists. At the beginning, most antiabortion organizations had ties to the Catholic Church, and rank-and-file activists had long leaned Democratic. Many of Congress's leading abortion foes were Catholic Democrats, including party stalwarts such as Sen. Thomas Eagleton, D-Mo. And the GOP had no shortage of abortion rights supporters, including New York Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who had vetoed New York's attempt to reinstate an abortion ban. Besides, many abortion foes saw their cause as a fight for social justice โ€” akin to Democratic demands for equality for people of color or the poor.

And the GOP, a party defined by demands for small government, was a strange match for a movement that demanded more government when it came to abortion โ€” more restrictions, more regulations and more bans.

After the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, neither party rushed to embrace an abortion ban. True, in 1976, the Republican Party platform included nominal support for one, but Gerald Ford did his best to distance himself from the platform, and Jimmy Carter, his Democratic opponent, endorsed what he called alternatives to abortion while backing the Hyde Amendment, a measure that blocked federal funding for abortion.

It was not until 1980 that Ronald Reagan ran on a strongly antiabortion platform, seeking an edge with disaffected Catholic Democrats and evangelical Protestants. For decades, right-leaning evangelicals had not had a political home. But in the late 1970s, GOP operatives such as Paul Weyrich saw an opportunity to change that and establish a grip on national power for their once-minority party. They worked to use issues such as abortion, as well as a blossoming movement for gay and lesbian rights and the fight for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution to convince conservative Christians to overlook their religious differences and recognize that the GOP was the best vehicle for preserving their values.

It seemed that abortion foes who wanted to be politically relevant had no choice but to align with the GOP. And over time, the Democratic Party increasingly defined itself as a champion of reproductive rights, firmly shutting the door on abortion opponents uncomfortable with the GOP.

For a time, pro-lifers aligned with the GOP with an eye to writing an abortion ban into the Constitution. But by 1983, even with Republicans in control of the White House and the Senate, the fight for a constitutional abortion prohibition fizzled. The antiabortion movement turned its focus to reversing Roe. The only way that could happen was if abortion opponents became an electoral force, securing wins for presidents and senators who would put the right people on the Supreme Court. Such political influence required unity and disciplined voting as a bloc, which made disagreements about what it meant to be pro-life too costly.

For example, some defined pro-life to require opposition to the death penalty or protections against pregnancy discrimination. Others strongly disagreed. But these activists all saw abortion as the overriding civil rights issue of their time โ€” akin to the fight against slavery. Any goal paled in comparison to the importance of reversing Roe and banning abortion. The result: Activists came to unify on a narrow definition of pro-life.


This single-issue definition helped smooth over differences between abortion foes who had had a broader sense of the term โ€” who often favored legal protections for vulnerable, disabled, poor or marginalized people โ€” and GOP leaders who insisted that a bigger social safety net only created dependence and poverty and opposed new welfare programs for mothers and children. By equating pro-life with antiabortion โ€” and only antiabortion โ€” the GOP could safely welcome pro-lifers into the fold without fundamentally changing the party's positions on the social safety net.

In the decades that followed, the relationship between the GOP and the antiabortion movement did not always go smoothly. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the last time the Supreme Court seriously seemed ready to reverse Roe, some GOP leaders, including Republican National Committee Chair Lee Atwater, worried that close ties with abortion foes would cost the party with younger voters, especially women. After George H.W. Bush โ€” who himself had strongly backed family planning before proclaiming himself to be pro-life in the 1980s โ€” lost the 1992 presidential race, cries for change grew louder. Republicans for Choice tried to make the GOP a big tent. That push ended in failure, and even Donald Trump, who decades ago described himself as "very pro-choice" and more recently flubbed pro-life talking points, has made antiabortion policies one of the hallmarks of his presidency.

Conflicts about whether the antiabortion movement should align with the GOP have never completely gone away, but antiabortion groups, including the National Right to Life Committee and the Republican National Committee for Life (a project of Phyllis Schlafly's), developed effective strategies to control vital GOP committees and select delegates to the Republican National Convention. These steps helped them to keep the party in their pocket. And over time abortion foes less often (and less openly) questioned their loyalty to the GOP. After all, the Republican Party offered the best chance of controlling the Supreme Court and getting rid of Roe, especially as Democrats became increasingly committed to abortion rights with each passing decade.

And so today, the term's narrow definition explains how self-proclaimed pro-life champions can seemingly call for the sacrifice of seniors and other vulnerable people in the name of kick-starting the economy. But is also exposes a rift in the GOP, because for many pro-lifers, the true definition of the term has never been so simple. Many movement members have expressed special concern about end-of-life decision-making, including the abuse of the elderly and the disabled. Just think back to the uproar over Terri Schiavo and the debate about the Affordable Care Act's mislabeled "death panels." Others have even called for a broader approach, demanding an end to "throwaway culture."

The pandemic is shining a spotlight on the deeper and contentious debate over what it means to be pro-life, especially for those who have never been satisfied with a single-issue definition. And it also raises questions more broadly, about whether the Republican Party can be taken seriously the next time it tries to justify restricting abortion based on "the dignity inherent in all human life." When antiabortion politicians invoke a right to life in condemning abortion but then show little hesitation about sacrificing people's lives, it raises the question: Is the GOP the party of life, or just the sworn enemy of Roe's right to choose?

David S. Cohen is a law professor at Drexel University and co-author of "Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America."

Mary Ziegler is the Stearns Weaver Miller professor at Florida State University College of Law and author of "Abortion and the Law in America, Roe v. Wade to the Present."


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David S. Cohen photo Courtesy of Drexler University

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