The Republican Party and Pro-Life Voters?

No doubt the Republican Party wants to keep the pro-life vote in 1996, but does it understand what it has to do to keep it? Although most of the declared or probable Republican presidential candidates describe themselves as pro-life (except California governor Pete Wilson and maverick Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter, running on what he calls a “moderate, pro-choice” platform), none of them wants to emphasize the pro-life issue.

Although a majority of Republican members, as well as all the Republican leaders, in both houses of Congress, are similarly pro-life, few of them really want to emphasize the issue either. It is notorious that the Contract with America contains no specific pro-life initiatives, and, meanwhile, leaders such as Majority Whip Senator Trent Lott candidly admit that “I don’t think you’ll see a lot of action” on the pro-life front.

Then there is Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour, also self-described as pro-life, who has nevertheless been declaiming for the past couple of years that anyone who thinks legalized abortion should be a defining issue for Republicans “ought to have his head examined.”

In spite of this obvious lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Republican leadership — almost as if the pro-life vote did not supply the margin of victory in the 1994 mid-term elections! — the Republican Platform nevertheless still does call for a Human Life Amendment that would make operative for the unborn the right to life and to the equal protection of the laws which the Constitution is already supposed to guarantee to everyone.

However, a number of Republicans appear to have become quite nervous, and then some, about this; they want to drop the HLA goal as unobtainable, meanwhile simply affirming that the Republican Party, unlike the Democratic Party, opposes “abortion-on-demand” and is therefore “the pro-life party.”

This desire to drop the HLA plank from the platform persists in spite of the pro-life gains in the 1994 elections. The abortion issue is seen as too emotional and divisive. Polls indicate that while Americans do not favor abortion on demand, they do not want to see abortion banned, either. Appearing too “harsh” or “extreme” on the issue will meanwhile alienate voters in the middle — so it is thought.

“We shouldn’t continue to fight on ground we cannot win,” former U.S. Education Secretary and Drug Czar William J. Bennett was recently quoted in the Washington Post as saying — a position he has held for some time, along with other prominent Republicans and conservatives. The same Post article revealed, in fact, that “active . . . negotiations to moderate substantially the Republican positions on abortion and school prayer” have been going on among important Republicans.

But it seems that something of a monkey wrench was thrown into these “negotiations” when Ralph Reed, executive director of the surging Christian Coalition, recently told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that pro-life voters will not tolerate any watered-down Republican platform in 1996. Reed said that “pro- life and pro-family voters, a third of the electorate, will not support a party that retreats from its noble and historic defense of traditional values and which has a national ticket or a platform that does not share Ronald Reagan’s belief in the sanctity of human life.”

Media reports tended to interpret Reed’s statement as indicating that the Christian Coalition would not support any candidate on the ticket who was pro-choice on abortion; but Reed plainly said “platform” as well as “ticket,” and thus he would also seem to have been warning restive Republicans that backing away from the HLA platform language could trigger a major “walk” by pro-life voters in 1996, alienating them in large numbers.

If so, Ralph Reed is right: pro-lifers have not been moving increasingly into GOP ranks for no reason. They have been voting Republican because they believe that, as their Life Chain signs proclaim, “Abortion Kills Children”; and so they have supported the party that has officially declared at least a theoretical commitment to stopping the wanton slaughter of children by abortion. Republican leaders will trifle with this deep-seated pro-life conviction at their peril.

Leaders with constituencies understand this, and it is no surprise that, since Ralph Reed spoke out, a number of other Christian right figures, such as Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Beverly Lattaye, and Phyllis Schlafly have all followed suit.

You do not ground a point of principle as basic as the right to life on what you can easily “win,” much less on what polls say Americans want. America has to enact a Human Life Amendment if our Constitution is to go on meaning what it says. We will have willfully abandoned the whole basis of our democratic and constitutional system if we ever admit that there is a class of people — such as the unborn — to whom the guarantees of the Constitution do not apply.


Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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