Is Reagan Scuttling Pro-Life Vote?

The President is in serious danger of needlessly and permanently alienating the multi-million member right-to-life movement – a key element in his 1980 coalition and one whose continued loyalty is crucial to hopes of a long-term Republican realignment.   

The right-to-lifers, who are credited with bringing millions of traditionally Democratic voters into the Reagan and Republican columns last year received their first major jolt when the President announced the appointment of Arizona Appeals Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court.  The pro-life supporters were upset by O’Connor’s pro-abortion record while a state senator in the early ‘70s, but what bothered even some who were less interested in the abortion issue per se was a memo by Kenneth W. Starr, counselor to Atty. Gen. William French Smith, which was extremely misleading about O’Connor’s past stands (see Human Events, July 18, 1981, page 5).

The disillusionment among pro-life ranks continued to grow when it was learned that appointments to lower federal courts were also being made without apparent reference to a nominee’s position on abortion – an approach believed to have the backing of Presidential Counselor Ed Meese, who is on record as differing with Reagan on the abortion issue.

The Washington Post reported August 19, for instance, that, “Notwithstanding the calls in the 1980 Republican party platform for judges who oppose abortion, none of the nominees said they had been asked their view on abortion.”

To pro-life activists, this failure to put major significance on judicial appointees’ abortion views is seen as a betrayal by the President of a major campaign pledge.  Not only did the 1980 platform boldly promise to work “for the appointment of judges at all levels of the judiciary who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of human life,” but the President explicitly defended that plank during his Sept. 21, 1980 televised debate with John Anderson.

But what has really stunned pro-life activists is a letter dated August 3 in which President Reagan uncharacteristically leveled a personal attack against Dr. Carolyn F. Gerster, a widely respected Phoenix, Ariz., physician and former president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRTLC), calling her “vindictive.”  The typewritten letter, which White House sources have confirmed was dictated by the President himself, was in response to a letter protesting the O’Connor nomination from Mrs. Marie Craven, an Illinois pro-life leader.

“I believe that most of the talk about my appointment was stirred up principally by one person in Arizona,” the President replied.  “I have done a great deal of checking on this and have found this person has something of a record of being vindictive.”

This letter has sent shock waves through the right-to-life movement.  Dr. John Wilke, an Ohio physician who has succeeded Gerster as NRTLC president, told Human Events the letter was disturbing for several reasons.

“One,” said Wilke,” “is the charge that she is a vindictive person, which is totally untrue.  She’s one of the most gentle and loving and considerate persons I know.  So it’s a total misreading of what she is.”

Wilke went on to note that the President had met with Dr. Gerster on at least two occasions.  One of these, ironically, was a meeting held at Reagan’s request in Rye, N.Y., on Jan. 17, 1980.  As a direct result of that meeting, at which candidate Reagan promised to appoint pro-life jurists, the NRTL Political Action Committee endorsed the Reagan presidential drive two days later.

Wilke said it was understandable that the President would not know enough about Greater after a few brief meetings to form an accurate personal judgment of her character.  Therefore, said Wilke, “what one suspects is that he has been told his [that Gerster is “vindictive”] and if that’s true, then we are very, very concerned about his advisors.”

Pro-lifers were surprised at the President’s statements, said Wilke, “not only because it was incorrect but it was so out of character. Therefore, said Wilke, “what one suspects is that he has been told his [that Gerster is “vindictive”] and if that’s true, then we are very, very concerned about his advisors.”

Pro-lifers were surprised at the President’s statement, said Wilke, “not only because it was incorrect but it was out of character” with the President.  “Now that doesn’t mean that any of us can’t get annoyed if we don’t have full information and say something at times – and perhaps even dictate something at times…

“We have known that there was some talk in the White House trying to undermine her [Dr. Gerester’s] credibility by calling her names such as that.  We had known that there was some character assassination going on by people in the White House who were not friends of ours.  We had gotten some of those vibes.  Now, apparently, the President must be listening to some of that.”

Almost equally upsetting, said Wilke, were comments in the President’s letter indicating that the Chief Executive is still not fully informed about Judge O’Connor’s pro-abortion record.

Thus, in his letter to Mrs. Craven, the President said Judge O’Connor had assured him “of her personal abhorrence for abortion.  She has explained, as her attacker did not explain, the so-called vote against preventing university hospitals in Arizona from performing abortions.”

Reagan went on to say that O’Connor, as a state senator, had voted against a rider to a stadium construction bill prohibiting abortions at the university hospitals, adding that the Senate “turned that down” because its members, including O’Connor, believed the rider was non-germane and therefore unconstitutional. Actually, this was inaccurate.  While O’Connor voted against the measure, it was nevertheless adopted by the legislature and later upheld as constitutional by the Arizona court.

What bothers Wilke and other pro-life leaders, however, is the President’s failure to mention O’Connor’s votes on four other measures, which they believe were far more significant.  “Frankly,” Wilke explained, “we have long since quit mentioning the stadium bill.  It was a relatively minor one of the bills that she was involved in.  There were four major votes, all of which are totally documented now, all of which indicate that she was in favor of abortion-on-demand till birth.”

Two of these were “yes” votes – one in the Senate Judiciary Committee and once in the Republican Majority Caucus – on a 1970 measure that, according to the Arizona Republic, would have removed “all legal sanctions against abortions performed by licensed physicians.”  Had it passed, the measure would have given Arizona the most lenient abortion legislation in the country at the time.

Another was Sen. O’Connor’s co-sponsorship in 1973 of a family planning measure that would have provided “All medically acceptable family planning methods” including “surgical procedures” to anyone including minor children.  The bill explicitly provided that “the consent of the parent, parents or legal guardian of the minor is not necessary to authorize such family planning services.”

Still another was her 1974 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee against a memorial to the U.S. Congress calling for a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortions except when the mother’s life was endangered.

“If the only bill the President mentions is the relatively unimportant and peripheral stadium bill” while ignoring Judge O’Connor’s far more important positions, said Wilke, “then one wonders does the President actually know about this issue?”

(In emphasizing the stadium bill, the President still seems to be relying on the now-discredited July 7, 1981 Starr memo.  That memo to the attorney general, in which Starr summarized two telephone conversations he had had with O’Connor, described O’Connor’s vote on the anti-abortion rider to the stadium bill, citing her doubts about its constitutionality.  However, it failed completely to mention her 1974 committee vote against calling for a Human Life Amendment, while providing inaccurate information on her 1970 and 1973 positions.  It also sated, inaccurately, that Judge O’Connor had never had any “dispute or controversies” with Dr. Gerster.

Despite a growing feeling of disappointment among pro-life activists, they still have not broken with the Administration – at least not yet.  The President insists that he stands four-square with them in the belief that abortion should not be legal except to save the life of the mother, and the right-to-life leaders by and large trust that the President is sincere about this.

Still, the opportunity to attracted traditionally Democratic Catholic ethnic and evangelical Protestant voters into the GOP fold, based on their heavy opposition to abortion, may soon slip away.  As Dr. Wilke explained, the greatest political strength of the right-to-life movement is in its abilities to mobilize cross-over-votes – an ability that will vanish if the Republicans lose credibility on their 1980 pro-life promises.