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Republicans and Abortion

Hon. Jo Ann Emerson Member of Congress United States House of Representatives

Dear Mrs. Emerson,

I wonder, sometimes, if I still belong in the Republican Party. The Party and I go back more years than I care to remember. When we were debating abortion in College Republican meetings in the 1970’s, there was only one question: Would we ban all abortions, except to save the life of the mother? Or would we also make exception for cases of rape and incest? I was on the “hard” right. It seemed to me logical consistency required it. If the principle was to protect the lives of the innocent, the children of rape and incest were no more guilty than any others. And if that wasn’t the principle, then the only purpose of abortion laws would be to punish women guilty of misconduct. Which of course was what triggered feminist ire at that time – punishing women alone for what both men and women bore guilt. So we stuck to the hard line. We wouldn’t be vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. But it was always assumed that after we succeeded in overturning Roe that the campaign against abortion would be undertaken in the States, just as it had been before Roe.

The problem was that this logically consistent position did not have public support. If there was any hope of passing a repeal of Roe v. Wade, compromise would be necessary. This, incidentally, marked the line of division between supporters of Gerald Ford and supporters of Ronald Reagan, the pragmatists and the idealists. My head told me to go with President Ford, but when it came time to cast my ballot, my heart, enraptured by its love of consistency, led me to vote for Ronald Reagan, whom I had idolized since seeing his famous TV address on behalf of Barry Goldwater at the end of the 1964 campaign. I was one of that cadre, organized by Jesse Helms’ Congressional Club, which delivered a victory for Ronald Reagan in the North Carolina primary, his first victory, without which his 1976 campaign would have collapsed, and without which his 1980 campaign would never have occurred.

I was part of that 1980 campaign, a candidate for the General Assembly, endorsed by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. The hot button issue was the Equal Rights Amendment, the ratification of which depended upon the North Carolina legislature. We were opposed, in a campaign organized primarily by anti-abortion forces. There was a lot of talk, of course, about unisex bathrooms and putting women into combat (nightmare scenarios which have now become reality without protest from the Republican leadership), but the real issue was whether to put into the quiver of the Supreme Court one more arrow with which to shoot down state laws based upon their personal ideas of what constitutes “equality," rather than allowing the elected representatives in each state to make those decisions in accordance with the sensibilities and mores of their own constituents. Roe v. Wade was used as the albatross – the stark warning of what the Courts would do to frustrate the right of the people to govern themselves unless we turned them back. The goal was always to turn power back to the States to govern themselves.

Today the Republican Party is involved in a debate that was inconceivable in the 70’s and 80’s. Instead of overturning Roe v. Wade, the talk, such as your own H. J. Res. 4, is to create its mirror image. By proposing a Constitutional Amendment to extend the protection of that body of courtmade law under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments "to all human beings irrespective of age, health, function, or condition of dependency, including their unborn offspring at every state of their biological development," you would join the Roe justices in robbing the States of their constitutionally reserved authority to legislate standards of medical practice, of the degrees of homicide, and defining appropriate protection at each of stage of human gestation. I would give it back to them.

Ironically, my objective might actually now be achievable. We have the Democrats on the run on the subject of abortion. They are scared that the albatross of Roe may now be tied around their neck. If the GOP holds onto power, the Dems might, within five to ten years, be happy to join in a constitutional amendment that would overturn Roe and return legislative authority over abortion to the States, particularly if it is accompanied by similar recognition of the States’ authority to recognize, or not recognize, “gay” marriages. But as the ball has been moved down the field, the goalposts have been moved as well. You have staked out a position that is not achievable. My position, while more likely to be achieved, is not, as was the “moderate” position of the 70’s, pragmatic. It is, in fact, principled – based upon the very constitutional principles in which our nation’s government has its origin.

My position, staked out thirty years ago, has not changed. I think all abortions should be forbidden, except in those (now very rare) cases that they are required to save the life of the mother. But, as Jesus noted in discussing the subject of divorce, there are some things that aren’t right, but which “Moses allowed because of the hardness of your hearts.” We must pass laws for the people that we are and not for those we might want to be. If the “red” states are as good as their spiritual pretensions, they may lead the way for the “blue” states. They will not corral them into following. This is the world in which the Lord has ordained we live, until He returns. To reach this objective is a work “sufficient for the day.” Our nation’s founders held no illusion of creating a utopia.

Another issue which consumes the Republican Party and pro-life movement and makes them unrecognizable to me is that concerning human embryos and fetal stem cells. I believe that the appropriate point at which to protect human life is when a fertilized egg is established in the mother’s womb, not when sperm meets egg. Such a degree of “fine tuning” was not contemplated in the 70’s and 80’s when the possibility of human embryos surviving outside the womb had not reached public consciousness and we thought we were busy enough trying to protect children with moving limbs and beating hearts from being aborted. However, I respect the conscience of those who believe that “life begins at conception,” and join them in opposing taxpayer funding for such medical research and procedures which offend their conscience.

Ironically, it is easier, politically, to pursue this tangential issue, because you generate less political opposition cutting off funds to medical researchers, or even stopping their research, than you do telling unhappily pregnant women they can’t have an abortion. But to expend enormous energy and political capital on these matters instead of the paramount objective of overturning Roe v. Wade is a “realism” which turns principle on its head. The difference between an isolated zygote lying in a petri dish and a child in the second or third trimester of gestation is greater than the difference between the Terri Schiavo her parents thought they were visiting in her last days and the Terri Schiavo her husband and a whole set of doctors and judges thought was lying on that hospice bed. I think that difference should guide us in setting our priorities.

Consider, if you will, what I have heard reported, that the Bush Administration, and Republican strategists in general, are interested not in resolving the abortion issue, but in keeping it alive as a motive for continued campaign contributions and voter mobilization. Consider that the strategy of expending Congressional time and attention on the subject of stem cells and embryos rather than constructing a realistic campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade may be the product of such an unspoken objective. Consider that your own proposed amendment, which stands the proverbial “snowball’s chance in hell," may also play into this strategy.

And then consider what you might achieve now.

I am, Respectfully, By grace and in faith,

William Reid Dalton III Burlington, North Carolina

April 9, 2005