Recently, a friend referred to Ronald Reagan’s years in office and, with the offhandedness of one who believes he is stating a generally accepted truth, said the president talked a great deal about abortion but “didn’t do anything about it.”
It’s been more than three decades since I worked in the Reagan White House as Deputy Director of Presidential Correspondence; still, those words stung. I admit they hold a kernel of truth—justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, both nominated to the Supreme Court by Reagan, failed to overrule Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton when they had the opportunity to do so in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Instead, they joined the majority that substantially reaffirmed Roe and Doe.
The toll of this tragic history has been unfathomable—more than 63.5 million human lives taken since 1973. But the truth is, Reagan shared the profound disappointment of pro-life advocates in the lack of progress made during his two terms. He rued that he was leaving office in 1989 with the Court’s abortion decisions still in place. And he would rejoice that the Supreme Court today appears poised to right a wrong that has endured nearly as long as its 1896 ruling upholding the constitutionality of segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson, overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education).
But contrary to my friend’s assertion, Reagan did much as president to proclaim and defend the sanctity of life, applying moral reasoning as well as conservative measures to questions of domestic and international policy. He was not only a Great Communicator but a tireless one. His White House press spokesman—the aptly named Larry Speakes—notes in his memoir a little-known fact about his boss:
He likes to write notes and personal letters in longhand, and he often sends checks to people in need, like a child who might need a kidney transplant or someone who is down on his luck. There are a lot of stories about his generosity that we don’t know and probably never will. (Speaking Out: Inside the Reagan White House, page 113)
I can vouch for the accuracy of his observation, having seen hundreds of those longhand responses to personal pleas and policy concerns flow through the Reagan correspondence shop—which processed 8,000,000 letters a year.
In fact, it was a letter that had firmly bonded pro-life groups to Reagan in 1980. He was the heavy favorite that year for the GOP nomination, but campaign manager John Sears cautioned him to run “above the fray,” shunning the kind of fora and grassroots contact natural to Reagan. As his momentum faltered, March for Life leader Nellie J. Gray wrote to the campaign, urging Reagan to make his pro-life commitment explicit. In his letter responding to Gray he did just that: He would support a reversal of Roe, he wrote, and the restoration of a constitutional right to life.
After this, a team of pro-life lobbyists and leaders—including Phyllis Schlafly, Sen. Jesse Helms, gubernatorial candidate Guy Farley of Virginia, and Missouri’s Anne O’Donnell—marshaled forces to support Reagan’s bid for the nomination and secure a pro-life platform at the July 1980 convention in Detroit. It was no easy victory. Reagan’s rise had been resisted by the bulwarks of the GOP establishment; those who ran Gerald Ford’s campaign in 1976 had not been pleased with calls to amend the Constitution to reverse Roe v. Wade. Texas Sen. John Tower, chairman of the 1980 platform committee, and even some of Reagan’s own aides, at first resisted abortionsoftening language offered by pro-life delegates. But in the end an expanded platform plank was adopted:
There can be no doubt that the question of abortion, despite the complex nature of its various issues, is ultimately concerned with equality of rights under the law. While we recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general—and in our own Party—we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children. We also support the Congressional efforts to restrict the use of taxpayers’ dollars for abortion.
We protest the Supreme Court’s intrusion into the family structure through its denial of the parent’s obligation and right to guide their minor children.
Reagan won the 1980 election having received a major and timely push from pro-life voters, who also propelled dozens of new pro-life House and Senate members into office. Less than a decade after Roe, it appeared that Congress might be ready to pass a strong pro-life measure authorizing the states and Congress to protect the unborn. Reagan made clear, publicly and in meetings with key leaders, that he would sign into law a Human Life Statute as well as support the Hatch Human Life Amendment favored by some groups.
As Cynthia Gorney recounts in her detailed history of this intense period in the national debate (Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars), the pro-life movement splintered over which option to support, a statute or an amendment. During this time, it also broke with Reagan, albeit less visibly, over his nomination of O’Connor to the Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Potter Stewart. Then-president of National Right to Life Dr. Carolyn Gerster resolutely opposed O’Connor’s pro-choice policy stance, which was well known in Arizona (where O’Connor had a long history of public service). This, along with dissension among pro-life leaders, frustrated the swift progress that right-to-life forces had expected to make in Reagan’s first term.
The best account of Reagan’s role during these years is found in historian Paul Kengor’s book God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life. Kengor’s The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand, published two years later, fills out the story. According to Kengor, Reagan spoke and wrote early on about his regret—official biographer Edmund Morris described it as an “undeniable sense of guilt”—at having signed the Beilenson abortion legalization bill in 1967 when he was governor of California. During his two terms as president (1981-89), Reagan sought to advance the right to life in domestic and foreign policy alike. His administration implemented policies—upheld by the Supreme Court in 1991—that kept abortion out of the Title X federal family planning program. (Budgets submitted to Congress regularly attempted to defund Title X.) In 1984 Reagan launched the Mexico City policy, banning abortion funding in foreign aid programs and reinforcing America’s commitment to respect the customary laws and policies of nations to which we give financial assistance.
In 1983, Reagan penned “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation” to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The unprecedented presidential essay, subsequently published as a book, was suggested by J.P. McFadden, associate publisher of National Review and founder of the Human Life Review, the intellectual quarterly that animates the efforts of pro-life scholars and writers to this day. Getting Reagan to agree to such a project was a long shot, but it was crucial for maintaining pro-life momentum at the highest level for the nation’s leader to denounce the damage Roe continued to wreak on a good and generous country. “We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life,” the president wrote, “without diminishing the value of all human life.” Reagan appealed to the nation to recognize the pain inflicted on unborn babies by cruel abortion procedures; he also called for renewed support for the work of pregnancy-help centers, which now can be found in every corner of America. And he repeated these themes in annual proclamations declaring National Sanctity of Human Life Day, a practice observed by all of his pro-life successors.
I can attest that Reagan’s private exchanges met or exceeded the high standard these public declarations set. When in early 1981 Anne Higgins, his Special Assistant and Director of Correspondence, asked me to join her shop at the White House, I didn’t hesitate to accept. (I did wonder, however, whether “answering the mail” would be an engaging role.) I had met Anne when she was a lobbyist for McFadden’s Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life. I was 28, newly married, and working as Legislative Director for the National Right to Life Committee. I was also new to the Washington D.C. scene. Anne and her colleagues, John Mackey and his wife Connie, became my political mentors.
Anne knew, or intuited, something that most others did not: Ronald Reagan was not merely a Great Communicator of the spoken word but of the written word as well. While he enjoyed addressing big and exuberant crowds, he also sought intimate contact. His generation was accustomed to writing letters—to family, to confidants, to the public at large. The Correspondence shop at the White House therefore became a hub and direct conduit to the president. Policy responses, draft speeches, and other documents generally wound their way through several departments and signoffs before the president would see them. Not so with letters from the public. Whenever Anne or a member of her team came across a story or anecdote they thought would interest or entertain the president, she would send the letter, along with a note, to his personal secretary. So it was with the letter from eight-year-old Peter Sweeney, who wrote after the assassination attempt: “Dear Mr. President, I hope you get well quick—or you might have to make a speech in your pajamas.” Reagan famously read Peter’s letter aloud during his 1981 address to a joint session of Congress.
Throughout his presidency, Reagan treasured letters he received from the public. Anne sent a packet of 25 to 30 every Friday—the Weekly Sample—that he would read and respond to over the weekend. More than once on a Friday afternoon, word would come from Marine One that Reagan was waiting on this packet before leaving for Camp David. More than once he called Anne on a Monday morning to apologize for not responding to every writer, or maybe to discuss a topic brought up in one of the letters (such as the Shroud of Turin) that had piqued his interest. It really was the case that the American people had special access to him in this way. Naturally, given her own passion for life, Anne Higgins ensured that Reagan saw letters about abortion and other social issues—from citizens on both sides of the debate. More than anything else, the responses to these letters convinced me that Reagan’s conviction concerning the inestimable value of human life was both profound and central to his worldview.
As Kengor describes him, Reagan was a religious man, a practical Christian, born to a Catholic father and evangelical mother. But his insights on life issues were broadly humane. His opposition to abortion was grounded in common-sense observations that rejected pro-abortion evasions. On the eve of the 1982 March for Life, confronted by a reporter who challenged the strength of his anti-abortion stance, Reagan replied:
If you came upon an immobile body and you yourself could not determine whether it was dead or alive, I think that you would decide to consider it alive until somebody could prove it was dead. You wouldn’t get a shovel and start covering it up. And I think we should do the same thing with regard to abortion.
In his October 1984 debate with Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale in Louisville, Kentucky, Reagan repeated an observation he had long made about the ability of Congress to interpret and carry out provisions of the Constitution:
With me, abortion is not a problem of religion, it’s a problem of the Constitution. I believe that until and unless someone can establish that the unborn child is not a living human being, then that child is already protected by the Constitution, which guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all of us.
In a “proclamation of personhood” issued on January 21, 1988, Reagan elaborated on this idea of existing constitutional protection under the 14th Amendment. Consciously echoing the words of the Emancipation Proclamation, the president wrote:
In legislation introduced at my request in the First Session of the 100th Congress, I have asked the Legislative branch to declare the “humanity of the unborn child and the compelling interest of the several states to protect the life of each person before birth.” This duty to declare on so fundamental a matter falls to the Executive as well. By this Proclamation I hereby do so.
Thirty-four years later, Ronald Reagan’s insistence that protection of unborn children is inherent in the Constitution may at last command a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike those who argue that abortion is a matter to be decided by the states, Reagan contended for the idea that the unalienable rights with which we are endowed by our Creator are not gifts from the state but guarantees inscribed in our very humanity—that, as Lincoln said in 1858, “nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”
Reagan’s gravesite memorial on the grounds of his Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, bears this inscription: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
Today, while some elements of the GOP have wandered far from Reagan’s governing philosophy, there is no doubt that the Party is pro-life.
President Trump wasn’t a letter writer, and the advance of email and other social media have no doubt diminished the output of “men of letters.” But Ronald Reagan’s appeal to our nation’s conscience is even more compelling—more urgent—than ever. And, in an irony of history, well beyond my ability to fathom, it is likely to be Donald Trump’s—not Ronald Reagan’s—judicial appointees who bring down the evil edifice of the 1973 abortion cases. God works in mysterious ways.
Chuck Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.