This is the third in an occasional series of exclusive articles in which leading conservatives who served in the Reagan Administration explain how they believe the principles of Reagan conservatism ought to be applied today and in the coming years. This week, Gary Bauer, who served as President Reagan’s chief domestic policy advisor, addresses right-to-life issues.
“My administration is dedicated to the preservation of America as a free land, and there is no cause more important for preserving that freedom than affirming the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have meaning.”
Today, as America grapples with an assortment of attacks on human life, we would do well to embrace the clear thinking of Ronald Reagan so that America may continue to be the shining city upon a hill our founders envisioned.
Reagan was our nation’s greatest pro-life President. In the 1980s, when the number of abortions was on the rise, he stood tall as an unapologetic advocate for life. Consider the following accomplishments:
- Supported legislation that would allow for a challenge of Roe v. Wade.
- Instituted the Mexico City Policy, prohibiting federal funds to be used to promote or perform abortions abroad.
- Suspended funding for UNFPA for violating American law by participating in China’s forced abortion policy.
- Prohibited federal funding of abortion and birth control.
- Blocked use of federal funding for research using tissue of aborted babies.
- Introduced the issue of fetal pain into the public debate over abortion.
- Enacted laws protecting the right to life of handicapped newborns.
- Designated a National Sanctity of Life Day.
- Issued Personhood Proclamations in 1984 and 1988.
Perhaps foremost among Reagan’s many pro-life achievements was an essay he wrote for the Human Life Review in 1983, the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. In “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation,” he made a compelling defense of the right to life of every human being from conception until natural death. He clearly laid down a principle about the sanctity of life that applies not only to abortion, but also to other major life issues in today’s debate, including human cloning, embryo-killing stem-cell research, doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia.
“We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life—the unborn—without diminishing the value of all human life,” Reagan wrote. Here’s how we can apply this principle today:
Abortion continues to be America’s greatest pro-life challenge. Scientific advancements over the past generation have been crucial in revealing the unborn child as a living, breathing and feeling human being. And pro-lifers have done a good job framing the debate in recent battles—including those over partial-birth abortion and unborn victims of violence. Yet, despite these victories, nearly one million abortions are performed each year in America, the most of any Western nation. Reagan would have been a staunch supporter of any law that would reduce the number of abortions, including parental notification and consent laws and laws recognizing the pain and suffering a fetus endures during an abortion, a fact Reagan spoke of 20 years ago.
As the Great Communicator, Reagan was an articulate spokesman for the unborn. Pro-lifers should follow Reagan’s example by reminding citizens that America’s abortion regime was not the product of the democratic process but was thrust upon them by unelected judges. Pro-lifers must also make it a priority to elect strongly pro-life candidates to office (those who will in turn appoint pro-life judges), and those who, like Reagan, would consistently and articulately make the case for life.
Perhaps Reagan’s greatest gift to the cause for life was his presentation of the constitutional claim for the protection of human life. Reagan did so by aptly comparing the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade abortion decision to the court’s heinous Dred Scott slavery decision a century earlier. Today’s leaders ought to follow President Reagan’s lead by arguing that human life cannot be left up to the agenda of activist courts, or even to the whims of the public, but to a God who endows each of us with the right to life. The 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution clearly explain that no person shall be deprived of the right to life.
I have no doubt where President Reagan would come down on the important new life issues of today. Unlike President Bush’s 2001 compromise allowing federally funded research on existing embryonic stem-cell lines, I believe Reagan would have opposed any government funding of embryonic or fetal stem-cell research. Reagan sincerely believed that we cannot diminish the value of one category of human life without diminishing the value of all life. Of course, Reagan’s position on life stands in stark contrast to those who have suggested he would have supported embryonic stem-cell research and cloning.
Conversely, I am certain President Reagan would have supported the more-promising and ethical adult and umbilical cord stem-cell research, which have already produced treatments for more than 80 different diseases and afflictions. Reagan was a master of the bully pulpit, and his ability to communicate directly with the American people is sorely needed on these issues. Most Americans are still unaware of even the most basic distinctions between types of cloning and stem-cell research, an ignorance that was highlighted in this year’s cloning ballot initiative in Missouri when confusion led many people to inadvertently vote in favor of cloning.
President Reagan’s pro-life position was not limited to beginning-of-life issues but extended all the way to natural death. It is clear Reagan would have stood against pro-assisted suicide and euthanasia laws. As he stated in his 1988 Personhood Proclamation: “The right to life belongs equally to babies in the womb, babies born handicapped and the elderly and infirm.”
Last year, as the Terri Schiavo saga unfolded, I couldn’t help but reflect on how President Reagan might have reacted to Ms. Schiavo’s ordeal and to her parents’ repeated legal attempts to provide her with food and water. I have no doubt Reagan would have worked to combat the spread of euthanasia and doctor-assisted homicide by strongly backing legislation penalizing doctors and nurses who withdraw or withhold feeding and hydration from otherwise healthy patients.
Reagan did not promote the pro-life cause to pander to the conservative base of the Republican Party. He saw the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence as our Founders’ admonition that life is a right all people share because it is given by God, and that government’s role is to secure and affirm that right, not exploit it.
Because of his administration’s full-throated support for human life from conception until natural death, the Republican Party learned that pro-life was a winning position. Reagan’s articulation of the pro-life message altered the demographic profiles of both parties as many Southern, evangelical and conservative Catholic voters switched allegiances to vote for him. They were called “Reagan Democrats”—the original values voters!—and many would eventually become Republicans primarily because of the GOP’s position on values issues like abortion.
Reagan was the “Great Communicator” in part because he had the unique ability to make the complex easy to understand. This skill was evident when he said, “Simple morality dictates that unless and until someone can prove the unborn human is not alive, we must give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it is [alive]. And, thus, it should be entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Republicans must never stop pressing toward this goal until it his achieved.