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How the Republicans Became the Anti-Abortion Party, and What it Means for the GOP Today

In the mid-1970s, the religious right became heavily involved in electoral politics and a driving force within the Republican Party. By the end of the decade, abortion had emerged as the dominant issue in the religious right’s quest for power and influence. How did this happen, and what does it mean for American politics and the Republican Party?

In January 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, a “right to privacy” exists giving pregnant women a choice of whether to have an abortion. As with other constitutional rights, this is not absolute. Under the ruling, in the first trimester the abortion choice is absolute. In the second trimester the state can impose reasonable regulations. In the third trimester abortion may be prohibited except when necessary to save a life.

Despite this landmark decision, immediate response from the religious right was muted. A typical reaction from the evangelical movement came from W. A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, who in 1973 said, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.” The Southern Baptist Convention in 1974 reaffirmed its long-held view that abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal deformity, or strong evidence of the likelihood of emotional, mental, or physical damage to the mother.

In 1973, the chief issue concerning the religious right was tax exemption for private schools. In Green v. Connally in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that, under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service Code, racially discriminatory private schools are not entitled to Federal tax exemption. That became the overriding issue for the religious right in the 1970s, as the Justice Department investigated private schools including Bob Jones University for racial discrimination.

By 1976, the anti-abortion movement was not yet strong to influence the GOP platform, which contained a statement acknowledging that abortion is a “difficult and controversial” issue about which Republicans had differing views. There was one candidate in 1976 who was prescient and began to stake out an anti-abortion position. That was Ronald Reagan.

By 1980, a sea-change had taken with respect to the thinking of religious right leaders. A chief figure promoting this change that would capture the Republican Party was Paul Weyrich, a conservative political activist. Weyrich was different from many other conservative activists in that he believed the key to success would be combining old conservative issues such as taxation with religious moralism. Weyrich tried out various issues such as school prayer and especially the issue of tax exemption for private religious schools. But nothing worked on a grand scale.

Then came the 1978 midterm elections, in which anti-abortionists campaigned for winning Senate candidates in Minnesota and Iowa. The following year Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority to support candidates for public office. Weyrich and Falwell realized that the tax exemption issue based on racial discrimination had limited value, but opposing abortion was a moral issue cutting across racial and religious lines. That was their thinking on the eve of the 1980 elections.

When Ronald Reagan emerged as the putative nominee in the primaries, he won the endorsement of the religious right with a goal of outlawing abortion. The appeal of Reagan was odd, because this he was once reputed to be a Hollywood womanizer who never attended church, and had signed the country’s most liberal abortion law as governor. In 1967, Governor Reagan signed a bill giving any doctor the power to approve an abortion for “mental-health” reasons of the mother. Nine years later Reagan claimed that he was unaware of that part of the law, but that is disingenuous, in that Reagan spoke of his misgivings on the day he signed the law. The number of abortions skyrocketed in California. However, Jerry Falwell among others believed in Reagan’s sincerity that he was now one of them. The GOP Platform of 1980 again admitted that Republicans differed on the abortion issue, but this time declared support for a constitutional anti-abortion amendment and called for an end of taxpayers’ money used for abortion services. Reagan never became a churchgoer, but did affirm his anti-abortion views in a 1983 essay titled “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.” His essay opposes abortion on demand and urges Americans to value the life of the “unborn.”

The Republican Party would from then on be an anti-abortion party in its national platforms and legislative agenda, but the results have been mixed. Reagan’s first Supreme Court appointee was Sandra Day O’Connor, who saved Roe v. Wade. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, Justice O’Connor wrote that an abortion is a constitutional right that can only be restricted if a restriction does not place an “undue burden” on a woman. The case was about a restrictive abortion law in Pennsylvania that required spousal notification prior to an abortion. That was struck down as an undue burden because some husbands are abusive. Other provisions, such as parental consent and a 24-hour waiting period, remained intact.

By the end of Reagan’s presidency, Republican Party leadership had become beholden to the anti-abortion movement. All GOP presidential nominees from George H.W. Bush to Donald Trump declared their anti-abortion position and their desire that Roe v. Wade be overturned. Some of the nominees, such as George H.W. Bush and Mitt Romney, had prior moderate views on abortion—Bush had previously supported Planned Parenthood—but became staunchly anti-abortion when seeking the nomination.

What have the anti-abortionists done to the Republican Party? They have turned the party rightward on a host of other issues. The religious right has also been extremely conservative on multiple issues including taxation, tax exemptions for religious institutions, immigration, healthcare, and same-sex marriage. To keep the anti-abortionists satisfied, Republicans have had to follow suit on those issues. The party formerly had liberals and moderates. Now, the liberals are extinct and the moderates are dwindling. But so long as the primary system is the method of choosing the nominees, the Republicans appear stuck in the status-quo. In the Republican presidential primaries of 2016, 14.8 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots. That allows the base largely composed of anti-abortionists to choose the nominee.

Is this situation a benefit or hindrance to the Republican Party? A CBS News/New York Times poll taken shortly before the November election in 1980 indicates that Americans believed inflation was the worst problem facing the nation, not abortion or any social issue. The Republicans have been compelled to choose anti-abortion nominees although that has never been the most important issue for most Americans. If other issues such as inflation are salient, the party can win. Yet, there is a problem. The Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections, only to be saved twice by the Electoral College. Furthermore, the conservative uniformity of the Republicans, largely brought about by the power of anti-abortionists, makes expanding their base difficult.

Finally, the Texas abortion law, and a possible gutting (if not outright overturning) of Roe v. Wade in the coming year creates a big target for the Democrats to use in the 2022 midterm elections and perhaps 2024. Polls have long indicated that about 80 percent of the American people want abortion to be legal in some form. The anti-abortionist capture of the Republican Party may do serious damage to the party in the near future.