How Abortion Became a Party-Line Issue

By John Murdock Published on January 11, 2016

To the surprise of no one, President Obama just rang in 2016 with an election year veto — protecting his signature legislation, Obamacare, and one of his core constituencies, the friends of Planned Parenthood.  Republicans in Congress had voted overwhelmingly to deny taxpayer dollars to the nation’s largest abortion provider and Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the measure. Four decades ago, however, the politics of abortion were far from being this set in partisan stone.

Pro-Life Democrats and Pro-Abortion Republicans

Though it would rise to become the primary fulcrum on which party politics would pivot, in 1972 (a year before Roe v. Wade) a party label was a poor indicator of one’s stance on abortion. An early front runner for the Democratic nomination was Senator Edmund Muskie, a devout Catholic who spoke of the “sanctity” of unborn life. In the end, though, the Democrats nominated perhaps their most liberal nominee to date in George McGovern. Even so, a pro-choice platform plank was defeated 1,572 to 1,101. Furthermore, McGovern’s rather weak personal advocacy for abortion rights drew the ire of radicals like Gloria Steinem.

Feminists were no doubt hotter still when the nominee eventually selected a pro-life Catholic in Sargent Shriver as his running mate. Around this time, Shriver’s brother-in-law Senator Ted Kennedy — who had turned down the VP spot on what he assessed to be a doomed attempt to unseat President Nixon — was telling his constituents that “wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized” and chief among those was “the right to be born.”

Much of the pro-life movement actually emerged from Democrats responding to the actions of Republicans. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, following the lead of his GOP colleague in Colorado and a certain California Governor named Ronald Reagan, championed an abortion liberalization bill several years before the Supreme Court took up the issue. This prompted an organized, if unsuccessful, response from Catholics in the Empire State who were overwhelmingly Democrats. The 1973 Roe decision, in which 5 of the 7 justices in the majority had been appointed by Republican presidents, then nationalized an issue that had always been a state concern, and the focus of the right-to-lifers turned to a constitutional amendment.

The first annual March for Life was organized in 1974 on the anniversary of Roe by Nellie Gray, a government lawyer in Washington, D.C. who was single, Catholic, and a Democrat. Back in New York, another Democratic Catholic woman, Ellen McCormack, a homemaker who had never run for anything, would launch a bid for the presidency to trumpet the cause. Her effort drew up to 9 percent of the vote in several primaries, earned her 22 delegates, and would change the course of political history.

The Unlikely Path to a Pro-Life Platform

Despite the surprising success of McCormack’s single-issue campaign, the Democrats did not embrace a life amendment in 1976, trying instead to straddle the fence and hold traditionalist Catholics and radical feminists together with a platform that affirmed “the legitimacy of both pro-life and pro-choice views.” President Ford — who had chosen the very pro-abortion Nelson Rockefeller to be his post-Watergate Vice President and was himself privately pro-choice and married to a publicly pro-Roe First Lady — saw an opportunity. Here was a chance to pick up some disgruntled Catholics for the general election as well as blunt the primary challenge of Ronald Reagan, who had changed his view and was courting the growing right to life movement.

Ford dropped Rockefeller from the ticket and dispatched his future running mate Bob Dole to consult with the McCormack campaign. Though the end result went further than Ford would have liked, the GOP followed her advice and adopted language explicitly supporting a human life amendment. This would ultimately prove a seismic platform shift, but it did not profoundly shake the political world at the time. Opposition to abortion was not yet the key to most Christian voters’ hearts.

J.C. Doesn’t Save America

Georgia’s Democratic Governor Jimmy Carter was running as an evangelical Christian and drawing enthusiastic support from the faithful. One prominent minister, Bailey Smith, even noted before thousands that “his initials are the same as our Lord’s.” But at the time being an evangelical was not synonymous with being an anti-abortion pro-lifer. Like his Southern Baptist denomination, Carter had mixed feelings on the matter and that led to a mixed message. When he could not avoid the topic, he expressed personal dislike for the procedure and opposition to public funding but a grudging acceptance of the Court’s decision.

After Carter narrowly defeated Ford, the question became whether the Sunday school teacher from Plains would change Washington, or would Washington change him? As it turned out, Carter stayed pretty much the same while both Washington and the evangelical world changed around him.

Carter seemed to assume that believers would be thrilled just to have one of their own in the Oval Office, ignoring or losing a list of potential staffers supplied by the supportive Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.  Conversely, he sought to appease his wary left flank by supporting the Equal Rights Amendment (which at the time had little organized opposition) and filling his administration with feminists, including Roe attorney Sarah Weddington and the pro-gay champion Midge Costanza.

The last years of the 1970s, however, brought new waves of socially conservative activism and Carter’s faithful church attendance alone would not prove enough to keep evangelicals satisfied. The Southern Baptist singer and citrus spokesperson Anita Bryant led a 1977 campaign that rolled back a local homosexual rights ordinance in Florida, sparking a national debate and turning the drinking of orange juice into a political statement. The “Stop ERA” movement spearheaded by the conservative Catholic Phyllis Schlafly was, seemingly at the last minute, able to block the state ratification of a constitutional amendment that had already cleared Congress. Influential evangelical intellectual Francis Schaeffer highlighted abortion in his books and films as a signpost of “secular humanism.” Schaeffer and allies like the Presbyterian physician Dr. C. Everett Koop (later to be U.S. Surgeon General under President Reagan) would galvanize what had been sometimes tepid and inconsistent evangelical opposition to abortion and convince leaders like the Baptist minister Jerry Falwell, Sr. to move past a spirit of denominational and political separatism.

Carter Disappoints, Reagan Points the Way

The Moral Majority and other groups would emerge as important umbrella organizations for people who saw a collapse of values afoot on the “born again” President’s watch. Many of those who had sported “J.C. Can Save America!” buttons in 1976 had now traded them in for ones that championed a human life amendment and bluntly stated “Abort Carter.” More than just turning from Carter, the ascendant Christian right was also turning to Ronald Reagan.

The telegenic Californian whose 1976 primary challenge helped to nudge the GOP to a pro-life platform position, now touted social conservatism — along with a strong national defense and economic freedom — as part of the fusionist “three-legged stool” that he would stand on in 1980. The Democrats were moving in the opposite direction. Senator Ted Kennedy became the first of many Democrats with White House ambitions to flip to a pro-choice stance when he ran against Carter from the left. Kennedy’s bid for the nomination was unsuccessful but the party’s platform moved from neutral to explicitly pro-abortion rights. In 1984, Walter Mondale, the son of a Methodist minister, and Geraldine Ferraro would form the first unabashedly pro-choice Democratic ticket and a tactical decision was made to demonize religious right leaders like Falwell. It turned out to be a bad tactic, as Mondale lost in a landslide that exceeded the drubbing that Carter first experienced at the hands of Reagan.

While there remained dozens of elected pro-life Democrats for years, in 1992 the party made it clear that the welcome mat was not out for them. The DNC denied Bob Casey, Sr., then the liberal but strongly pro-life Governor of Pennsylvania, a convention speaking role and instead opened the stage to the president of the National Abortion Rights Action League and women from Pro-Choice Republicans for Clinton. The GOP never as forcefully showed pro-choicers the door, but most found it anyway. Today, the tussle over Planned Parenthood funding illustrates that, despite an early history that defied easy labels, abortion has clearly become a party line issue.


John Murdock is an attorney who now writes from his native Texas after spending over a decade in D.C.  His online home is

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