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The pro-life odyssey of Ronald Reagan

by | Jun 21, 2021

By Dave Andrusko

I meant to write about this fascinating topic earlier this month, but didn’t. However “This Peanuts Strip Offers a Window Into Ronald Reagan’s Changing Views on Abortion” is, I believe, very much worth exploring, not just because it involves our 40th President but also for what it says about how people’s attitudes on abortion change—and why.

TIME magazine is one of the last places I would turn to for a thoughtful piece on abortion but in this instance, Olivia B. Waxman is to be congratulated.

Widely known then but forgotten by many now, Ronald Reagan signed an abortion law while governor of California. What was widely known then but for all practical purposes forgotten now is that Reagan did so with great hesitancy.

Waxman begins, “In 1967, when Governor Ronald Reagan made California the third state in the union to liberalize its abortion laws, his hesitancy about doing so was clear from the start. “Reagan Reluctantly Signs Bill Easing Abortions” was the headline of the June 16, 1967, New York Times story…”

Unknown completely was that then-Gov. Reagan shared those concerns in a letter to Charles Schultz, the creator of the “Peanuts” cartoon strip. According to Waxman, Blake Scott Ball “came across the letter in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute’s archives” while “researching the new book Charlie Brown’s America: The Popular Politics of Peanuts.” 

Since Goldman’s piece appeared June 1, some have made fun of the “theology” that caught Gov. Reagan’s attention—comments made by Linus to Lucy Brown in a July 20, 1970, cartoon. 

Linus asks, “What would happen if there were a beautiful and highly intelligent child up in heaven waiting to be born, and his or her parents decided that the two children they already had were enough?” Lucy replies, “Your ignorance of theology and medicine is appalling.” 

To which Linus responds, “I still think it’s a good question.”

As do I.

That aside, for our purposes—learning how Gov. Reagan explained his thinking to Schultz– here’s a long quotation:

The author of the legislation wanted to go all the way and simply make it a matter of personal choice and wide open. I probably did more studying on that subject at that time than on anything else before or since and finally had to tell him I would veto such a bill. I could only reconcile abortion with the right of self defense, namely the right of the mother to protect herself and her health against even her own unborn child if the birth of that child threatened her. It has been my feeling that our religion does justify the taking of life in self defense. I cannot accept that simply on whim even a mother has the right to take the life of her unborn child simply because she thinks that child will be born less than perfect or because she just doesn’t want to be bothered. Well, the bill was amended to meet my demands, and I signed it into law. Now, however, I have discovered some of our psychiatrists are particularly willing to declare an “unwed mother-to-be” to have suicidal tendencies, and they do this on a five minute diagnosis. The result is that our medical program will finance more than fifty thousand abortions of unwed mothers in the coming year on such flimsy diagnosis.

Well, I didn’t mean to let you in on all my problems but just to give the background of why you touched a nerve with your strip the other day. Thanks very much.

Lou Cannon was one of the earliest biographers of Ronald Reagan. Referring to what was then a new book by Cannon, Fred Barnes, writing for the Wall Street Journal, reminded us 

Within a year after signing the abortion bill, Mr. Reagan told political writer Lou Cannon that he’d never have done so if he’d been more experienced in office [he signed the bill five months after being elected]. It was “the only time as governor or president that Reagan acknowledged a mistake on major legislation,” Mr. Cannon writes in his new book, “Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power.” By 1980, Mr. Reagan was campaigning for president in favor of banning abortion in all but rare cases.

In a 2007 piece for the New York Times, Cannon wrote

Within a few months of the signing, he [Reagan] decided that abortion was an impermissible taking of a human life, a position for which he was later cheered by Mr. [Rev. Jerry] Falwell and the anti-abortion movement.

So why mention this so many years later? By all accounts, Ronald Reagan was intuitively and intellectually and spiritually pro-life. But even he was taken in, assured the legislation allowed abortion in only the narrowest of instances, a pattern of deception that was woven in the warp and woof of the so-called “abortion reform” movement  of the 1960s and 1970s and lingers to this day.

Most importantly, Reagan saw he had made a grievous error and made a turnaround. That awakening was aided immeasurably by Dr. Mildred Jefferson who was an early president of National Right to Life:

In fact, in 1972, after seeing Jefferson on a national television interview [aired on WGBH], then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan credited her with his pro-life conversion. He wrote to her: “No other issue since I have been in office has caused me to do so much study and soul-searching. … You made it irrefutably clear that an abortion is the taking of human life. I’m grateful to you.”

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