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Support for Life: A Leadership Test

by | Oct 26, 2011

Sarah Kliff


By Dave Andrusko

The title of the piece in the Washington Post today is “How abortion became a political litmus test.” Using pro-life Herman Cain’s clarifications—he said he had been misunderstood and that he is and always has been “100% pro-life”—as a springboard Sarah Kliff talks about how the two major political parties have been strongly identified with one side or the other of the abortion issue.

Especially, she writes, in the quadrennial contest for President. While Democrat Barack Obama is reliably pro-abortion, all the Republicans (with the exception of one candidate no one even notices is running) are pro-life.

It’s only a column so you wouldn’t expect a lengthy history of how, in Kliff’s words,

“It wasn’t always this way: as recently as the 1970s, views on abortion didn’t break down along party lines. As a number of academic studies have pointed out, abortion has been transformed from an incidental political issue to a core litmus test over the past 30 years.”

At one level, the obvious response is…of course. As Kliff points out Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973, nationalizing an issue that had been localized, and in the process enflaming pro-lifers who correctly felt the Court had short-circuited the democratic process in what the late Supreme Court Justice Byron White correctly labeled ”an exercise of raw judicial power.”

Kliff’s major contention is

“From 1972 to 1980, there was no correlation between voters’ views on abortion and their political affiliation, a 2002 study in the journal Political Behavior found. That meant that a Republican could capture the presidency even with a lengthy track record of supporting abortion rights. Exhibit A for this is President Ronald Reagan. During his tenure as California’s governor in the 1960s, Reagan signed some of the nation’s most permissive abortion rights legislation. This came well before Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that would require every state to recognize a legal right to abortion.”

     But this misses that it was not as if when Reagan ran for President he was touting the permissive abortion bill he signed into law, and flying pro-abortion colors. Just the opposite. He deeply regretted what we had done in 1967 and ran as an unabashed pro-life candidate in 1980.

Having met with pro-life leaders, including most importantly National Right to Life, Reagan’s assurances were accepted with confidence. In 1980 National Right to Life established its PAC which assisted not only Reagan but a host of pro-life senatorial win election.

A friend of mine, who read the same article,  made a keen observation. Support for life is not best understood as a “litmus test.” It is better understood as a leadership test, illustrated brilliantly by President Reagan.

Reagan assembled a coalition that changed the dynamics of modern American politics. We might forget the mass infusion of “Reagan Democrats,” many of them were Catholic and pro-life. These were people, like me, who were “cradle Democrats,” who imbibed along with their mother’s milk an affinity for the Democratic Party.

Reagan showed them that on the most crucial social justice issue of the day their party had deserted them, and unborn babies.

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