Paul Tuns
The Interim

In the hundreds of hours of broadcast commentary and hundreds of thousands of words written following the death of Ronald Reagan, very little was said about his commitment to protect the unborn. Reagan was remembered as the man who brought down the Evil Empire, who restored America after its Jimmy Carter malaise and rejuvenated an intellectually dead Republican Party. But his defence of the unborn was an example of principled moral conservatism in the public square. As John Muggeridge wrote in LifeSite, “Ronald Reagan embodied all that pro-life political activists hoped for in a leader.”

As governor of California in the 1960s, he signed one of the first laws liberalizing abortion in America. But by the early 1970s, his Christian faith led him to the pro-life position, from which he was unwavering ’til the end of his life.

Early in his presidency Reagan committed himself to overturning Roe v. Wade, to the passage of the Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and numerous other pro-life legislative initiatives. In 1983, on the 10th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Reagan took the surprising step of submitting an essay, “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation,” to Human Life Review that ran in that journal and later published (with additional essays by his Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop and the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge) as a short book. In it he made the legal and moral case against abortion, for the legal recognition and protection of the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, and for doing so to fulfill the American project. He concluded his seminal work by expanding on Abraham Lincoln’s warning that no free nation could survive half free and have slave; Reagan said “Likewise, we cannot survive as a free nation when some men decide that others are not fit to live and should be abandoned to abortion or infanticide.” He reiterated that his administration was “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 which no other rights have meaning.”

In his State of the Union address in 1986 Reagan returned to this pro-life theme, calling abortion “a wound in our national conscience.” One is tempted to add, a wound that afflicted America and her ideals just as slavery had more than a century earlier.

It weighed heavily on Reagan’s conscience that the HLA and most other pro-life legislation was not passed during his presidency. But he could not be blamed as the increasingly pro-abortion Democratic Party thwarted any efforts to protect the unborn. As Dinesh D’Souza noted in Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, the 40th president “knew that the political configuration of the courts and Congress in the 1980s was such that abortion could not be outlawed.” The only significant pro-life legislation during the Reagan years was the Hyde amendment, which prohibited public funding for abortion. Reagan also issued an executive order, the so-called Mexico City Policy that prohibited the United States government from funding international programs that supported abortion. He urged “the sanctity of innocent human life (be) a principle that Congress should proclaim at every opportunity.” Upon leaving the White House in January 1989, Reagan said his greatest regret as president was his inability to do more to protect the lives of the unborn.

Reagan’s moral conservatism changed the political landscape. The Weekly Standard’s Terry Eastland wrote after Reagan’s death that he transformed the Republican Party, making it a party for what the sociologist James Q. Wilson called on the eve of the Reagan Revolution “the traditionalists” – those voters concerned about abortion, the assault on the family, the removal of prayer from schools, pornography and other cultural changes that threatened the vitality of the family and the stability of society. Gary Bauer, a Reagan domestic policy advisor and founder with Dr. James Dobson of the Family Research Council, said that Reagan made the Republican Party “a voice for the values of hearth and home.” Today it is almost unthinkable that the Republican presidential candidate in any election would be anything other than pro-life. Since the 1980 election, the Republicans have won an average of more than two-thirds of the evangelical vote.

Much has been made of the fact that Reagan seldom darkened the door of a church following the assassination attempt in 1981. He said that the security precautions would be a distraction for other church-goers, but he was always guided by his deep Christian faith. At the end of Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation, Reagan quotes Malcolm Muggeridge, on the need to be guided by faith: “… however low it flickers or fiercely burns, it is still a Divine flame which no man dare presume to put out, be his motives ever so humane and enlightened.” Reagan sought spiritual insight in secular politics; he called his nation to be a city on a hill, and did not forget that the light of that city was the Divine flame, that no law could abrogate.

D’Souza noted that Reagan once reflected on the effect of millions upon millions of abortions since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973: “These children, over tenfold the number of Americans lost in all our nation’s wars, will never laugh, never sing, never experience the joy of human love; nor will they strive to heal the sick, or feed the poor, or make the peace among nations. Abortion has denied them the first and most basic of human rights, and we are infinitely poorer for their loss.” In the 1990s, abortion declined nearly one-third in America despite being led for most of those years by the most radically pro-abortion president it has ever had. It is very likely that the failure to get pro-life laws passed is made up for, in part, by Reagan’s shining example, by his pricking of America’s collective conscience. It may not have won the war, but he gained territory by leading his country to the moral high ground.